The soft chime woke me. I opened my eyes to stare at the ceiling. Light gray with embedded strips that gradually increased in brightness the longer I lay abed. Laziness, a crime above all others, couldn’t be allowed to take root.
I swung my legs over the edge of the thin foam mattress and sighed for no reason other than another day had begun. Another day of dull work, hopefully not somewhere smelly and gross. Not that I had a choice, or would know what my job would entail until I received my assignment along with everyone else. Because we all did our part. Every single citizen of the Caves took turns doing the easy jobs and the vile ones. Everyone was treated equally. Or at least equally among those wearing the gray. Our society existed as divided colored castes, with Grays ranking lowest.READ MORE
Some days, I wondered what it would be like to be any other color. Did they feel differently than I did? Did they also wish they could just lie in their bed and not get up? Thrilling blasphemy to even think about it.
The lights overhead brightened to the point I squinted. My final warning I’d dallied too long. I stood, bare feet pressing against a floor neither hot nor cold. Everything always remained at the same temperature inside the habitat. Nothing ever really changed. It didn’t used to bother me. Now…now I dreaded waking.
With me out of bed, the automated mechanism flipped the mattress and its platform into the wall. In almost that same second, the cleansing unit lowered over me, a tube of seamless, solid gray that I closed my eyes to ignore.
The hated sensation of feeling trapped assailed me, as it did every morning of late. I couldn’t have said why my feelings had changed. The day always started with a cleaning. Actually, first a squat to expel bodily waste, which siphoned down a drain, thankfully without aid this morning. Extraction could be uncomfortable. However, given the locations of some of our tasks lacked proper fecal-disposal facilities, it had to be taken care of.
Body emptied, I regained my full height and kept my eyes shut as the expected tingles began running up and down my body, lasers removing dead-skin particles and any dirt. Not that there should be any, given I’d needed cleaning before my dinner the day before, as my shift in the mushroom gardens had left me grubby. A clumsy Gray, whose name I didn’t know, had fallen onto a large specimen, causing it to explode with spores. Not pleasant smelling, but at least I’d not been one of those who’d reacted horribly with giant, itchy red hives.
The invisible rays did their thing, and once the tingling ceased, I opened my eyes. The tube receded into the ceiling. At times, I wondered what would happen if the mechanism failed. The thought of being trapped caused a strange feeling inside me that caused my palms to sweat and heartbeat to accelerate.
A shelf protruded from the wall with my outfit—gray pants and shirt. The same as every other day. The only time I didn’t wear it was when I slept. At night, we stripped and put our clothing in the recycling chute. I would have preferred to remain dressed, as I felt exposed when nude in bed. Again, a recent change. I used to not care.
As I pulled on the loose tunic and pants, an unexpected voice startled me, emerging from the embedded speaker in the ceiling of the room.
“Congratulations, Citizen J891. You have been marked.”
What? I blinked a few times as I mulled over the word marked. How? When?
My hand reached over my shoulder, the tips of my fingers running over the back of my neck. Ridged flesh met the pads.
“I don’t understand,” I muttered aloud.
“You have been marked,” the voice repeated.
“Obviously,” I muttered, ignoring the jolt through the floor at my sarcasm. It happened more and more often of late. No matter how many times the monitoring system reprimanded me, I couldn’t seem to help myself. “What does it mean?”
“Proceed to the Consulate.” The Consulate was the place where those wearing blue administrated affairs. The Grays, like me, did the work. The Blues managed us as we went about our tasks. The darker the shade of blue, the higher the person ranked. We rarely saw the truly important, given they usually did most of the work from the Consulate, delegating supervision to the light blues.
And I was supposed to go there? “Why do I have to go to the Consulate?”
“Proceed to the Consulate,” the voice repeated.
I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t have said why other than it felt good. “How do I get there?” I’d never been. No Gray ever visited, or if they did, they never returned to speak of it. I should note not many of the Caves’ inhabitants spoke to start with.
“Proceed to the Consulate.”
“That’s a useless answer,” was my mutter.
The floor jolted me, harder this time. My teeth clacked. Punishment for being rude.
Frustration roiled inside me. I still had no idea what to do next, but asking apparently wouldn’t get me an answer. I kept my lips shut and chose to grope my nape a little longer, trying to determine the shape of the mark.
Distinct. Deep. How did such a thing happen to my body without me feeling it? Even if I slept, surely it would have woken me?
A better question—why me?
Could it be my recent attitude? That would make sense. I’d been zapped quite a bit lately and given numerous medical exams, as if I ailed.
I felt fine. Just bored. And curious. The word why kept coming up, and I’d yet to hear a because in response.
“What will happen to me?” I asked, not expecting an answer. What I knew? The Marked left and were never seen again. Just like the dead. Coincidence? I thought not.
I’d once heard someone mention that the Marked were chosen to be promoted to a new color. Could it be true? Promotion or punishment? I had no one to ask. I’d only ever kind of known one Marked before. Z1431, who’d lived across the hall from me, had worked on my last shift at the factory, where we oversaw the mushrooms getting made into food. Mostly ensuring no rats got sucked into the grinder. It ruined batches.
Her last morning, Z1431 had emerged from her room, eyes wide with excitement. “I was marked.” Her excitement had been palpable. To her, she’d achieved a great honor. Back then, I didn’t speak much, and Z1431 hadn’t questioned. She’d simply left, and eventually, someone new had moved in across the hall.
As for Z1431? I’d never seen her again. Would I run into her at the Consulate?
A chime went off, and my door slid open. Time to leave for the morning meal.
Wait, was I allowed to eat before going? If I didn’t, who knew how long before I’d receive nourishment? This could even be my final repast.
The Consulate could wait a moment while I filled my hollow belly. Despite the rebellious thought, I didn’t get jolted, because my thoughts were mine alone. I just had to be careful not to speak them aloud.
I exited into the hall to see the other Grays also ready for the day, all present but for one gaping spot farther up the hall. Not a real surprise. L1209 had been following the rules less and less of late. Screaming during lights out. Refusing to get on the transport. It wouldn’t be long before the Enforcers in their red armor came for her. Like the Marked, those who left in custody also didn’t return.
Shuffling in time, we headed down the hall, aiming for the stairwell. I knew without looking that behind us, the door at the far end of the corridor, disgorged the workers coming off shift. Habitats and tasks were carefully managed to ensure resting spaces could be shared by two or more people. I’d been taught it was efficient for housing and resources.
During all my time in habitat Sub13, I’d never met the other people who slept in my bed, although I did once find a stray blond hair the cleaning robots had missed. Definitely not mine, given the dark brown adorning my head.
We shuffled down the hall, wearing the same gray, two-piece outfits. We varied only in personal appearance, including face shape and placement of features. Our skin tones ranged from pale to dark, the same with hair. Those who kept their hair long wore it either pulled back from their face in a thick bunch or coiled on their head. Given my new mark, I’d chosen the former today rather than my usual latter. As if that would hide it. I felt the grooves of the mark burning, surely flashing its existence to everyone.
No one looked at me any differently, but I eyed the other Gray citizens suspiciously, wondering if any of them had woken up changed. Given their dull expressions, the same one I used to wear, I doubted they were aware of much.
We filed down the stairs, heading for the meal hall recently emptied of the workers just going to bed. We filed in and stood in a shuffling line to receive our first meal of the day. The stack of recycled bowls sat beside a slot in the wall. I placed the basin under the spout, hit the button, and with a gurgle, my meal gushed out. With bowl in hand, I then moved to my assigned seat. The thin gruel slopped along the edges as I bobbled while placing it on the table.
I noticed the spot across from me gaped empty.
“Where is C572?” I asked the woman sitting to my left.
As per previous times, she didn’t speak. She shrugged and kept eating. The older woman to my right, M3223, answered. “The Reds came and took her.”
That piqued my interest. Must have been bad to have the Enforcers come in.
The woman snorted. “There are only two reasons for the Reds to show up.”
Indeed. A crime merited immediate action. Violence to another citizen was the least tolerated, but a plethora of smaller crimes, such as socializing outside the designated meal times, could also draw the wrong kind of attention. The rules stated that, after we’d eaten, we were to return to our cubicles for a proper amount of sleep. Talking while at work resulted in being assigned solitary jobs. I didn’t like those. I spent those shifts in a state of anxiety, hating the isolation.
“I hear she got caught in someone’s room after lights out.” The gossip came from across the table as H312 sat down and added to the conversation. “She should have obeyed,” the smugly spoken conclusion.
Obeying made me think of my choice to fill my belly instead of making my way to the Consulate, which I could only assume would require a transport. Given the conveyance would run only when the current shift of Grays boarded, I’d be wasting my time to go to the platform too early.
I ate, lifting the bowl to my lips and siphoning the fluid. Bitter and thick. It didn’t taste good, but it filled the belly, nourished my body.
The chime went off. The Grays rose in a clatter of noise. Bowls in hand, we marched to the recycling bin to dump them, then headed out of our habitat to the cave courtyard. The transport filled the tunnel, waiting to load passengers.
The Grays marched onto it without any chatter. A pair of Red Enforcers and a Blue supervisor watched over us at the far end of the platform, making sure we behaved.
As others more eager than me streamed past, I hung back and didn’t release my breath until the full transport closed its doors. Those of us left behind would have to wait for the next transport. I’d given myself a little extra time.
My fingers clasped and unclasped as the transport moved off, creating a slight breeze that settled quickly once the car disappeared. It wouldn’t be long before the next one arrived.
I took a deep, if shaky, breath. The air on the platform outside the habitat had an interesting smell to it. Different from the antiseptic scent permeating the living quarters that had been dug into the rock. A glance overhead showed the glow of the orbs hanging from more stone. At times, knowing that rock surrounded us, I grew anxious. Felt trapped.
An odd feeling to have, given I’d lived in the Caves for as long as I could remember. First, we occupied the juvenile habitat, where older Grays taught us speech and purpose, along with the laws. Then we moved to a junior habitat, where we were paired with an older Gray, who then apprenticed us through all the jobs expected. More than once, if the learning Gray needed extra time.
I’d proved to be a poor learner, mostly because I hadn’t wanted to leave Q3111, a woman who’d shown me kindness and been the first to bring me out of the apathy I’d felt my whole life when I’d wondered what the point of it all was.
Cave life was hard, and at times, when I stared too long overhead, I got the impression the ceiling pressed down, crushing me, the most terrifying thing to happen. I’d never experienced a cave-in, but I’d heard of them. One survivor had risen from her seat at a meal and cried out about the experience. “I couldn’t breathe! Don’t you understand? I was being crushed. We could all die if the rock collapses.” The Reds took her away.
The approaching hum ended my brief respite. The transport arrived, a cylindrical metal tube that had doors that slid open along its length. I entered with the remaining Grays, still unsure if I headed in the correct direction. Then again, what other choice did I have to get to the Consulate? The transport provided the only method to move from our habitat to other areas.
With everyone on board, the doors sealed, and we began moving. I held firmly to the long bar running the length of the car. The hum as it traveled muffled the few conversations happening. Usually, I’d be one of the people trying to converse. But not today.
Today, I felt self-conscious and paid attention for once to the screens lining the ceiling. A newer video was running, with a smiling person in blue repeating the same old message.
Everyone has their part.
Everyone has their place.
Don’t break the laws.
Keep the faith.
Faith in what? I had many questions, but no one to ask. They taught us at a young age to obey. Because not obeying was a crime.
At times, though, I wondered about some of the laws that appeared to apply to Grays only. Why the strict rules for us and not the others? I knew the Blues didn’t have the same restrictions.
My supervisor on the job, for instance, ate her second meal apart from the Grays with another person who wore the same shade of light blue. Their meals, which could be chewed and looked better than our mugs of thin, drinkable gruel.
The supervisor also didn’t take the transport with us. Where did she live? Could there be habitats for just those in the blue? Which led to me wondering—a dangerous thing if discovered—just how many habitat areas actually existed? I’d lived in Sub13 since I’d progressed to working without my mentor. Could be my habitat was only one of many. After all, the number of worksites varied. I’d counted one hundred and four, with a new one added a few days ago.
The transport slowed, and the doors slid open, disgorging a portion of Grays. My hand, clamped to the bar, didn’t receive a jolt, meaning this wasn’t my stop.
A single Gray joined us, sweating as he grabbed the bar. Odd. Usually, people only exited and didn't board. Then again, he didn’t look well. Perhaps he’d been ordered to the clinic for medical analysis. I didn’t speak to him. The rules clearly prohibited talking between males and females. Another restriction that made no sense.
The doors closed, and we left. I swayed with the motion and wondered what the Consulate would look like. No one knew for sure, but rumor claimed it existed in the grandest cave of all, so big you couldn’t see the ceiling or walls. Obviously an exaggeration.
The transport slowed again. The doors opened, disgorging more Grays. Oddly, three boarded, male again. Very unusual.
The next slowdown took the rest of the Grays, except for the four who had boarded earlier and one new man, who entered the transport, holding a satchel. Taller than most, he glanced around with sharp observation.
He eyed me. “Why are you still here?”
I stared at my hand on the bar. It seemed obvious, but apparently, he wasn’t too intelligent. A male trait perhaps?
“I asked you a question,” he snapped.
“And?” my sassy reply. Only to add at his glare, “I haven’t reached my departure point yet.”
His brows rose. “You’re a Marked.”
“How did you know?”
“Next stop is the Consulate.”
Relief filled me at the knowledge. “Oh good. I wondered how to get there.”
He snorted. “You should be trying to do anything but go there.”
I frowned. “You know what will happen to me?”
He didn’t answer as the doors closed and instead turned to the other remaining Grays. He held up the bag. “Come on and grab your stuff. We can’t waste time. They’re sure to notice the cameras were disabled on this transport.”
The Grays all took a turn reaching into the bag, removing objects that I’d only ever seen in the possession of Enforcers. Weapons that could harm. Not that I’d ever done anything to merit their use on me.
Two of the Grays moved to the opposite end of the tube from me and began doing something to the wall that involved mashing lumps of some substance to the surface and embedding a string into them.
The last man to reach into the bag eyed me while not too quietly saying, “What should we do with her, boss?”
The fifth, with the satchel and eyes of a most vivid blue, glanced at me. “Nothing. Her presence doesn’t change the plan.”
What plan? What were they going to do?
“Brace!” someone yelled.
The explosion wasn’t what wrenched my grip free, but the sudden halting of the transport.COLLAPSE