Chapter 1: Before
It was the dead man’s expression that drew me. The depth of feeling on it, bare and exposed and unashamed. It called to me.
That’s a lie; it was his perfect stillness, the blue-grey cast of his skin where his mask had slipped in the night, the pearly sheen of his blown pupils.
That might be closest to the truth.
It might have been why I reached out that night, forgetting the danger. It might be what starts the tingling at the base of my skull even now, the fluttering itch in my fingers that sets them tapping and twisting whenever I remember the dead.
But it’s not the truth.
I don’t know what possessed me to pad across the crumbling tiles of the Corrections dorm. The other failures shifted and snored in lightless rows of cots that stretched out in every direction. There should only have been a faint blue radiance marking the locked doors. Instead, it was as though a spotlight illuminated the unnatural stillness of the corpse.
He’d been Mara-taken in the night, punished for failing one time too many to conform, to obey.
Ignoring the indecency of his shameful nakedness, the line of his jaw and the ridge of his nose uncovered, I traced the lines etched into his night-roughened face. Deep brackets surrounded his gaping mouth. Shadows gathered in the hollows below his cheekbones, regulation-grey skin gone bluish and stretched translucent over the boney ridges. My fingertips brushed the faint softness of his lashes where they flared wide as if to flee the blank orbs between them. How alien he was; how very nearly perfect, yet utterly destroyed.
They caught me like that the next morning, one hand pressed to the dead man’s twisted face as if, tracing my way through the echoes of his horror, I could know what he knew, feel what he felt.
This is the truth of it: I don’t know why I broke the rules so spectacularly. But the Mara haven’t come for me yet.
I’ve learned to suppress the wanting, hide my reactions. From the protective gold threaded through the walls and spun into the wards that halo the hoods of good workers, to the careful drilling in how to turn over all desire and wanting to the Mara before they can kill us, Refuge ensures the survival of the obedient, and only the obedient. The rest are sent to the unprotected lower reaches of the tower. Floor 6, Corrections, houses undisciplined failures, those destined to be devoured by the Mara.
Not me. I may have an unhealthy, embarassing fascination with the dead, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to just sit and wait to join them. I learned to ignore their draw, to focus on stilling the wilful twisting, reaching dance of my fingers by pinching them bloodless into submission. My reward? A probationary posting all the way up in the safety of Floor 18.
But I can’t ever mess up again. I’m only there on probation. One more failure, and the Mara will take me. I have to stop obsessing over the dead.
Which would be a lot easier if I wasn’t haunted.
Chapter 2: Now
Her name is Cadence.
Like me, she’s unsequenced. Singular. Defective. Refuge discontinued her production series after only one unit. Not broken enough to destroy, but not valuable enough to bother making more of.
It may be why I messed up, why I got sent to Corrections in the first place. It may be why she’s able to haunt me even now I’ve reached the shielded security of Floor 18.
Unlike me, Cadence refuses to learn her place. It’s probably how she got killed (she says she doesn’t remember). If I’m not careful, it’s going to get me killed, too.
“So I had this dream last night,” she says. “It was about trees. I miss trees. I miss climbing with . . . w-with . . . um . . .”
Her voice trails off into a toneless hum as she loses focus. This happens a lot.
“Stop it.” I whisper, so none of the other workers notice. I don’t have time for her stories. Her lies.
She blows a rude noise in my ear and proceeds to singsong something that mostly consists of the word trees looped at different pitches.
I don’t know what trees are. Probably just another one of her made-up stories. And she can’t have dreamt. She’d be . . . well, dead. Which, of course, she is.
My skin crawls in a not entirely unpleasant way.
“Dreeeams of treeeeees,” the ghost warbles into my ear.
I swat at her, clipping my hood in the process. The band securing it flies off. I scramble to yank the pale fabric back down over my hair and clap the other hand over my face to keep my mask from sagging any lower down my nose. The last thing I want is the entire room staring at the uneven dark splotches on my naked face. Forty grey workers sit in bland grey uniforms behind grey consoles in the grey room. The floor is slightly darker grey carpet, the walls an unbroken expanse of pale greyish-white paint except for the supervisor’s mirrored observation window and the two doors. The lot of it’s bathed in dingy yellowish artificial light. My decidedly non-regulation colouring would stand out like a vivid smear on the face of such bland perfection.
“Probationary Worker 18-Cole.” The voice is nasal, cracking and uneven. “I might’ve known.”
Division Supervisor Kistrfyv’s shoes nudge my shameful black probationary hoodband on the floor. Embarrassment flushes my skin even further.
His damp, bulbous gaze is neatly framed between the loose mask drawn over his nose and mouth and the crisp, even spread of his hood under the dual bands of a supervisor. They’re proper wards, of course, gleaming with protective spun gold. He’s dressed perfectly to regulation: baggy, form-obscuring grey tunic and pants hiding soft shoes, gloves under drooping sleeves, hood with its gold wards, and an opaque, veil-like mask covering every inch of admirably grey, medium-dark skin except the narrow opening around his eyes. His stance isn’t quite regulation, though; he leans forward, as though eager. If he weren’t the supervisor, he’d be at risk of a violation.
“I don’t like him,” Cadence says. “He’s a bully. And creepy. Why do you stick around this boring place, anyway? Let’s go already.”
I tighten my grip on my sagging hood to keep from swatting at her again. She knows perfectly well how important it is I pass probation and get promoted to full worker. I can’t afford any more mistakes. There’s no way I’d make it out of a second stint on Floor 6.
Some days, I wonder if we’re all grown with a Cadence, if she’s not a ghost at all but a sort of built-in temptation. But it’s not as if I can ask. The downside of strictly regulated isolation: no one to bounce ideas off of except your ghost, who’s probably a design defect in the first place.
Cadence is a forbidden distraction no matter how I look at it. We’ve been together so long I can’t really bring myself to blame her for all the trouble she causes. But if she makes me blow my chance to pass probation, I’ll never forgive her.
“Probationary worker,” Supervisor Kistrfyv says again, leaning in too close. “I will not have you destabilizing my division. Submit. Now.”
I ease up out of my seat. The chair squeaks. I wince, and surreptitiously stuff hanks of overgrown, too-dark hair out of sight. My mask droops on one side. I tuck my chin, partly to keep my face shadowed, mostly because the supervisor twitches and glares whenever my head rises higher than his. Head bowed, I shuffle around the console and pick up the black band that marks my inferior status. It reminds every other worker of what could happen to them if things go wrong. Best case: survival as a pariah. Worst: death.
But I worked hard to make it this far. I snug the mark of my shame down over my hood, smooth the mask across my nose, and stand, appropriately slouched and modest once more. What I wouldn’t give just to be invisible—but no, I must not want. I know better.
“Probationary worker,” Cadence mimics in a whiny tone so like Kistrfyv’s it makes me cringe, “I demand you extract my head from my butt. Probationary worker, I have nothing better to do with my time than stand here and blink like a fish. Probationary worker, I—”
“Probationary worker.” The real Kistrfyv speaks over her in warning tones. “You’ve held us all up from our work long enough. Submit, and be quick about it.”
“He’s such a weenie,” she huffs.
I twist my hands in the loose fabric at my sides to keep them still and try to look contrite. I mumble through a comprehensive list of my violations: distracting behaviour, unnecessary interaction, immodest dress, lack of focus . . . I’m enough taller that I have to tuck my chin, making me look submissive without really trying. He still glares.
I wrap it up with the rote submission: “I call upon the Mara to eat my dreams.”
It must be repeated three times. I string the words together under my breath, silently begging the Mara not to come at the same time. The only thing that could make this day worse is the Mara actually showing up and hollowing me out.
Rote submission is different than being Mara-taken. It’s meant as appeasement, a sort of pre-emptive measure. Void your disobedient impulses, turn over your hopes and desires to the Mara fast enough, regularly enough, and they’ll consume the offering and leave the rest of you intact. I’ve performed submission hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Sometimes there’s a rush of emptiness left in its wake. Other times, there’s no response. Maybe they don’t always hear me. I know it’s for my own good, but I still don’t want the Mara to come and eat my dreams. Better not to have any in the first place.
Kistrfyv makes me repeat the summons again. Louder. Clearer. Again. I scrunch my eyes shut and tighten my fists. This show of terror seems to please Kistrfyv, or maybe he just gets bored, because he finally lets me stop.
Cadence starts breathing the word weenie in a sort of singsong, gasping air in and puffing it out, drowning out Kistrfyv, who has started in on a lecture on the importance of submission without giving me leave to sit. My thighs tremble.
I twitch, suppressing the futile but tempting urge to swat her away again. Instead, I lower my chin another inch, concentrating. I need Kistrfyv to be pleased with me. Pleased enough to arrange a probationary trial soon. Pleased enough to grant me a promotion to full worker and hand over the gold ward to replace my black band. Pleased enough to erase my failure once and for all.
Kistrfyv strokes the dual wards around his forehead as if to emphasize his elevated position.
“Betcha he’s bald under that hood.” Cadence improvises an ode to his presumed follicular deficiency and warbles it directly into my ear at top volume.
I burn to give her a good kick. My legs are starting to ache from standing with my knees locked, but I don’t quite dare to shift my weight under the force of the supervisor’s damp gaze. To make things worse, the pants on this latest uniform are too loose. They’re edging past my hipbones, one anxiety-spurring fraction of an inch at a time. I pinch the end of my tongue between my teeth. The pain and sharp-edged, familiar sweetness of blood helps me focus.
Meanwhile, Cadence is losing interest in her little song. She now seems to be occupied with sucking the words in and wheezing them out again in a breathy sigh. It’s annoying. And distracting. And kind of amazing. What it would be like to just do whatever I feel like, the way she does? I clamp down on that thought.
“Aren’t you sick of it all?” she says, as if she knows what I’m thinking.
I flinch. I prefer it when she’s picking on other people.
“Why do you put up with it?”
As if we haven’t been over it. As if she doesn’t know just as well as I do. Better, even.
“Fight back! Defend yourself. Look at him. He’s a shrimp. He’s scared of you. You can’t be satisfied with this. How can you be so passive? Do something—anything! Do you have a pulse? Hellooo . . .”
I can’t respond. I’ve got to hold it in. She’ll get bored with me—or Kistrfyv will, if I can just hold out long enough. I can be smart. I can obey. I can wait them both out.
I can survive.
“Don’t you want more? You’re really going to let that weenie bully you for the rest of your life?” she demands.
It’s clear she would do things differently, if she could. The tragedy of her life is that she can’t. The tragedy of my life is she’ll never let me forget it.
Kistrfyv seems to see past my mask to the dissatisfied twist beneath. His eyes crinkle at the edges, and trails of indecent moisture seep. His cheeks threaten to engulf them in a sneer so wide it escapes the upper edge of his mask. The effect is unpleasant, but not nearly as much as his punishment will be: extra cycles of rec and more Noosh—the dense, flavourless goop that meets all nutritional requirements while ensuring uniformity among the populace. Or it’s supposed to, anyway. It drains the color from the other workers’ skin, keeps them shapeless and slim and more or less the same. My skin subbornly remains a vivid shade of brown, my eyes and hair too dark and distinctive. I’m too tall and too bony—which only adds to the misery of the rec cycles. On the bright side, every time they increase my Noosh allotment, it seems to dull Cadence’s voice and make it easier to stay on task.
I can see my probationary trial receding further with every blink of the supervisor’s bulbous, judging eyes. He has no intention of letting me live down my failure, letting me blend in with the crowd. He just likes watching me squirm.
I make no further apology, though Kistrfyv eyes me expectantly. He’d probably appreciate a little bow or a few tears. Maybe I should make more of a show of contrition. Maybe it would motivate him to promote me sooner.
Or maybe it’s hopeless. He tops off his lecture with a group chorus of benevolent regulation, watching me the whole time. After, I’m allowed to sit.
I move too fast, and bump my thigh. The skin burns, and I know it will bruise bright, invisible patterns under my uniform. Great.
I shift, all sharp angles at odds with the smooth, ergonomic curves of my seat, another reminder that I’m never right, even for something as simple as a chair. A wheel squeaks, high and thin. I cringe.
“You’re both weenies,” Cadence says.
I’d like to tell her to shut up. I’d like to tell her I have no choice, and she knows it. I’d like to tell her I’d rather be a weenie with a world to live in than like her, forever complaining and never able to do a thing about it.
I’d like to, but I won’t. She’s all I have. And she’ll back off soon, because I’m all she has. All she’ll ever have.
Chapter 3: Strangers
I don’t hate my job. Hate is dangerous. Hate is a wish for change. A wish is a dream that can draw down the Mara.
So I don’t hate my job. I merely appreciate when I no longer have to be at it. The pressure to focus, to keep from drifting off, to keep from being distracted by Cadence’s extravagantly expressed boredom . . . It’s exhausting.
Which is the point of work, after all. It’s the point of everything. Keep us just occupied and numb enough to stay out of trouble. Even water breaks are subject to regulation, carefully scheduled to avoid interaction between workers. But I excel at maintaining a modest perimeter, and my posture is flawless. Stooped shoulders to minimize my height, chin tucked to avoid eye contact and hide my face, elbows in, small steps to maintain balance and avoid disruption. It’s not easy. I’m still growing, and I have an unfortunate tendency to trip over my own oversized feet. I clamp my gloved hands together in front as I walk to keep the fingers still.
“I miss colour,” Cadence says out of nowhere. Like she does. “When was the last time you saw a proper, rich blue? Or orange? I miss orange. And fruit. And eating.”
My mouth goes dry as a tingle buzzes the base of my skull.
“Shh.” I glance to either side and roll my neck to make the buzzing stop.
“Oh, come on, it’s not as if they can hear me,” she says.
Not good. She has to stop doing this to me, reminding me she’s a ghost. It makes me think of what comes before. And then I can’t stop thinking about it . . .
“I can hear you,” I say, though my mind whipped past ‘ghost’ and went straight to ‘death’.
“You oughta thank me for breaking the boredom. How you can stare at that screen all day, I’ll never know.”
I hurry back to my desk and squint at the screen. Maybe if I pretend she’s not there, she’ll back off. I start scanning from the submerged lower levels, deserted except for the occasional aquatic patrol, and work my way up floor by deserted floor to the ebb and flow of the Corrections division on Floor 6 and on to the tangle of codes on the higher divisions. Floor 14, Residential, is reliably busy; the cleaners come and go all day long. Floor 18 looks empty, though of course it isn’t really. The system doesn’t track surveillance workers. There’d be no point in sitting here monitoring myself sitting here monitoring . . . yeah, no point at all. The snarl of codes is heaviest between floors 15 and 30, tapering off on the higher levels. As far as I can tell, only a few enforcers and a handful of division leaders ever go that high. Apparently the Mayor lives up there, but if she has a code in the system, I haven’t figured it out. Cadence interrupts.
“Oops. You missed one. Hey, if I help you find five more errors, can we leave early? I’m so done with this scene.”
I scan back across the display. A surveillance feed on Floor 10 is patchy, the handful of codes flickering in and out too quickly to represent the actual movements of workers. I flag the anomaly to the field team for investigation.
“Hey, don’t ignore me. Say thank you. Manners. Honestly, were you raised in a barn?”
I don’t understand. Barn? But she’s teasing, playful, which is better than nagging. She did save me from an error, after all. She was also the source of my distraction. I’ve got to focus better.
“Thanks,” I mutter into my mask. “Now will you let me concentrate?”
She makes a rude sound in my ear. It’s only a few minutes before she starts up again, complaining about things I don’t understand, distracting, harassing, and occasionally helping, just to change things up.
I won’t admit it helps me get through the day. A good worker doesn’t need release from the boredom. A good drone lives for the boredom—or rather, the boredom is what lets us live. So I don’t let on that I’m struggling to focus, counting the minutes through the day. Not even to Cadence.
I can’t dream of a different life, a better one. That’s not allowed. But can I help it if I’m forced to listen to Cadence imagine wild and beautiful alien worlds? She doesn’t always nag and tease and pester. Sometimes she tells stories, wild fantasies of people and places from the Outside. Colours, not just shades of grey; forms that aren’t purposelessly shapeless; food that’s something other than flavourless and slurped through a straw twice a day. More often than not, her stories end with her trailing off in confusion, usually when she tries to talk about herself instead of just making things up. Because, you know—ghost.
None of her stories are real. She doesn’t remember her past. She can’t. She doesn’t know any more about the world than I do. So instead of dreaming with her, I do the smart thing. I focus on my screen. Flag the anomalies. Repeat. Build a record of obedience.
I’ve only just sat down after my second water break of the day when I see it. I have to look twice to be sure. Surveillance is down across a full half of Floor 20.
“Is that . . . ?” Cadence sounds awed. “Full crash? How would that even happen?”
It’s a major anomaly. If there were warning signs, whoever missed that is going to be in a lot of trouble.
It wasn’t me, right? Please don’t let it have been me.
I flag it for field service in a flurry of clicks that highlight the breadth and severity of the situation. Whoever gets assigned to investigation on this one is going to be busy for a while.
An alert takes over my screen: “Surveillance Technician 18-Cole-: Assigned to task.”
That can’t be right.
“No way,” Cadence says, “you get to do a field investigation? Awesome.”
That definitely can’t be right. Only senior surveillance technicians are assigned to field duties. I glance at the supervisor’s office door and swallow a rising tide of panic. I should report something’s gone wrong and get the task reassigned.
Unless he did this.
The buzzing in my head settles into a deep, pulsing ache. I push back at it, rumpling my hood. He wouldn’t, would he? Purposely assign a major field investigation to me, just to see me fail? Or—
I take a closer look at the notation buried in the attached files. Two words jump out at me: “Probationary Trial”.
It’s finally here: my chance to leave failure in the dust and blend in with everyone else. I can’t believe it. I’d thought after this morning’s incident, I’d be waiting months, years even. I wring my hands. It’s here it’s here it’s here it’s—
Impossible. It’s a trap. Kistrfyv is setting me up to fail. I hardly know anything about field missions.
But there’s no way to refuse the task, not without admitting failure and giving up my shot at normality. So, fine. I’ll show him. I’ll show them all. I can do it. It’s the smart thing to do, just stand up and head out. Show no weakness, no distraction. In fact, I should get going. The sooner I complete the task, the sooner I can crush that weenie’s hopes of being rid of me.
“Really?” Cadence says as I push back my chair. I almost collide with a passing worker. “You’re actually going? This is so cool. What do you think Floor 20 is like?”
She keeps up a steady one-sided commentary. I try to breathe and walk at the same time. My fingers tap and twine. I clench them into stillness.
I don’t notice the figures at the elevators at first. When I do, my fists jump to my throat, tangling in the loose lower edge of my mask in undisciplined panic.
Refuge Force. It was all a trap. Kistrfyv set me up, and now they’ve come for me and they’ll drag me back down to Floor 6 to die and all of this trying will have been for nothing and—
There are several grey-uniformed figures standing there in front of the elevator. Which is weird. They’re too close together—even weirder. Most of them cringe, eyes shadowed under their hoods as if they’re just as afraid of being caught out in an error as I am. And those uniforms . . . Don’t enforcers wear white, close-fitting uniforms?
“You just gonna stand there or what?” Cadence sounds annoyed. “Let’s get going already.”
It’s as if she doesn’t even see them, doesn’t realize how impossibly creepy this is. It’s a bunch of workers. Together. In the same place, at the same time. Nearly touching, even.
Other than their astonishing misconduct, they seem pretty normal—except for the one in the middle. He’s tall, his shoulders pulled back to show the clear line of his body beneath a carelessly disarranged uniform that obscures his ID code. Where the others keep their heads modestly bowed, he stares right at me.
I blink. His hood is shoved back, exposing dramatic blue-black strands against glowing, golden skin. But even properly covered, he would stand out with those eyes. Bold, fearless, and direct, he stares back with molten gold irises. It’s not the shape that stands out – like many of the workers, his eyes are long and flared, though a fraction wider and more upturned than my own. But such vibrancy and movement, the way they seem lit from within . . . I didn’t know it was possible for a worker to have eyes like that.
Is he an only, too? There can’t possibly be another like him, not in all of Refuge.
I step forward to get a better look.
“About time,” he says.
Chapter 4: Freedom
“Finally,” Cadence says when I move out of the doorway. Then, as I take another step: “Uh, Cole? This way. Cole!”
She’s annoyed. It makes sense. It’s disgusting, the way those workers congregate. They’re all in each other’s space. And that strange man, he’s practically malformed: his shoulders thrown back, his smooth, angled jawline visible where his mask has shifted to one side. I can even make out the corner of his mouth, upturned like his eyes. He’s smiling?
It’s gross. Indecent. Dangerous. I feel sick. Or something.
He gestures and the other workers melt away, apparently taking their cue to leave. He moves closer. Somehow the loose folds of his uniform seem to accentuate his form instead of obscuring it.
“Cole. It’s been ages, flame. I’ve waited so long for you.” His voice is warm, liquid in a way that tugs my shoulders up around my ears and makes my teeth squeak. It also sends a tingling sensation across my scalp in an all too familiar way.
Why does he act like he knows me? Whatever this is, it’s very, very wrong. I should turn around. I should get out of here.
I don’t move.
“You don’t remember, do you? It’s okay, just come with me.” He moves closer. “You’re in danger here.”
I open my mouth. What comes out bears only a passing resemblance to language. I try again. “Wh—who are you?”
He laughs, and the tingling shoots into overdrive. “Ravel. I’m the one you’ve been waiting for.”
I want to protest, but I’m distracted by his hand on my arm. It shocks me a couple steps backwards. He follows, tugging his mask down. It flutters from one side of his hood.
A memory of a dead man’s face—my first, that blue-grey pallor over a bony jaw—flashes into my mind. It’s what I associate with this sensation of buzzing energy. But it’s nothing like Ravel’s smooth golden skin. He laughs at my confusion, a glint of light behind his teeth, his lips brighter than I would have imagined.
I swallow hard. What is this?
His arm slips around my back and sweeps me forward. He throws open a door across from the elevator. I dig in my heels. I’ve never noticed that door before. Never had a reason to. There’s darkness beyond.
“I don’t like this,” Cadence says. “Cole? Do something.”
“I’m here to rescue you,” Ravel says over her protest. “I know what you want, flame. I know what you need. You don’t have to be alone anymore. You don’t have to hide among these drones. I can give you back your life.”
He sounds so confident. Part of me wants to follow along unquestioningly—most of me, even.
But another part agrees with Cadence. This shining stranger, Ravel, with his smooth words and improper, familiar touch, is wrong. His actions are directly in contravention of regulation. He’s practically begging to be taken by the Mara—and I’m not going to be taken down with him.
I brace a hand on the edge of the door as Ravel steers me forward. He leans in, talking fast. The warmth of his breath on my ear makes it hard to focus as he chips away at my resolve.
“You’re out here on an assignment, right? That was me; I set it up to help you escape. You can’t trust Refuge. They’re lying to you, lying to everyone. They can’t protect you like I can. They just want to use you. You don’t remember—you don’t know how much they’ve taken from you already. Come with me. It’ll hurt less if you come now. I don’t want to see you suffer.”
Beyond the door, a stairwell stretches away into the shadows. I turn to look full into his face—far, far too close now. He smiles, all shining eyes and even, too-white teeth.
“Who are you?” I ask again, shaking my head in dizzying arcs that do nothing at all to clear it.
He sighs. The pressure at my back lessens.
“It would be better if you’d just trust me. This is all for you, after all.” His teasing tone reminds me a little of Cadence’s now. “Haven’t you ever dreamed of escaping this place?”
I suck in a breath and twist to look up and down the hallway. How dare he make such accusations?
“Hey.” He catches my chin. His gloves are missing. The warmth of his hand scorches right through my mask. His voice drops, his gaze dazzling in its intensity. “You can trust me. You’re meant for more than this. Didn’t you ever wonder why you were spared?”
My stomach churns.
“Cole, move,” Cadence says. “This guy’s crazy. Let’s get out of here.”
Where does she want to go again? What was I doing?
“I made a place to help people like you, flame, a place where you can be what you were always meant to be.” Ravel brushes a hand against my cheek. I can’t look away from his earnest gaze, from the promise swirling in its depths. I don’t know what he’s asking for, but I want to say yes. “There’s another world at the end of these steps. Freedom has everything you could ever want and more. You just have to reach out and take it.”
The concern in his expression seems to hook inside me and yank. I can’t catch my breath. I’m on fire. Of course, if it’ll make him happy. Of course. Whatever it was that he wanted. Whatever he said, I’ll do it.
Wait, what did he just say?
“People like me.” I lean away. People like you. Other people. Probationary workers? Failures? Is that what he sees me as?
“But you’re special.” He hurries on. “You always have been. You’re meant for more, so much more than this. Don’t you feel it? Haven’t you always known you were different?”
Different. I take another step back.
“This is wrong,” I say. It’s not a complaint, nor a challenge. Just a statement of fact.
I’m nobody special, just one more failure trying hard to do the smart thing and survive. Too smart to let myself wonder what it would be like for someone to want me, be happy with me, without wanting something of me. It has to be a lie, some kind of trick or scheme.
Oh. That’s it.
Finally, I get a proper glance at the ID printed on his uniform. 00-Ravel-. There’s no division code, no sequence number. He’s fake, just playing a part. It’s all part of my probationary trial. Obedience in the face of temptation. And what could be more tempting than someone like him telling me I’m meant for something more than this?
It’s so obvious, now I’ve caught my breath and can think again. It’s a final call to dream instead of obey. I need to submit to the Mara.
“You shouldn’t be here.” My voice comes out cold and even. I’m pleased with how steady it sounds. “You’re breaking regulation.”
Dark brows knit together over those molten eyes; so expressive, so pleading. It’s wrong to notice, to feel this. I know that. But he looks pained, and I feel like a monster for not giving him what he wants. Even when I know perfectly well it’s all a trick.
“I call upon the Mara to eat my dreams.”
“Cole, why? I’ll save you, make your every wish come true. Don’t you want to be with me? Why don’t you tell me what you want?” He leans even closer, whispers, “Tell me your secret desires. I’ll give it all to you.”
Images flicker through my mind in shades of blue and grey as I go cold, colder than their stiff skin. What would he say if I told him what I fantasize about? If he knew just how different, how “special” I’ve worked hard not to be? There’s no way. I can’t.
So why do I want to?
I take another step back, shaking my head. I’m smarter than this. I won’t get taken in.
“I call upon the Mara to eat my dreams.” The tingling starts to recede.
“What’s wrong? Please,” he says.
“It’s a trick,” I whisper, more to myself than to him. “I won’t fail. I call upon the Mara to eat my dreams.”