Wonderfall

Chapter 1 preview

        The coach rolled through the gap in the ridge, following the endless strip of white road. For the past hour, the craggy mountains grew steeper around me as I motored higher. But as I crested the top, I could finally see the steely grayness of the ocean, the blackness of the clouds beyond and the silvery silhouette of the electrified wall around the city, rising from the earth and disappearing into the void of space. At a distance, it looked like the planet had been pierced with a needle, a frozen shaft of starlight, one that could have reached to the moon.
        I looked at the time, lit in blue against the windshield. Six hours. That’s how long it had been since I left everyone and everything I had ever known. That’s how long I’d gone without seeing another human being. That’s how long it had been since I had anything to eat. My stomach growled at the reminder.
        Pushing back in my seat, I opened my mouth trying to pop my ears. The change in altitude made my head feel stuffy and with the hollow feeling in my belly, I was beginning to get a headache. Nobody bothered to tell me about the side effects of travel. Then again, I didn’t know anyone who had ever traveled before. I suppose if I had known I was going to feel dried up like a raisin, stomach and head aching and ears full of mush, I might have tried harder to fail my testing. But with my destination in sight, I knew my little troubles would be a thing of the past soon enough—I was about to have much bigger problems to deal with.
        The chime on my tether rang and I glanced at it, momentarily happy for the distraction until I saw it was my dad, snuffing the flicker of hope I had of getting a distraction from my troubles. It wasn’t so much that my dad was a bad guy. He was a good guy, in fact. But over the last few years, I had come to realize how little we really had in common.
        I think I cried for a day when I left home at thirteen to start my testing. I don’t think I have cried in the four years since. And apart from the frequent calls from my mom, needling me about the usual stuff—girls, testing, girls, whether I was eating enough … girls—the calls with my dad had worn paper thin. With him, weekends at home had become nothing but small talk and awkward silences. That is, until I graded to level four. That was half a week ago. My father had called more times in the past forty-eight hours than he had in the whole last term. Hardly anyone tested in the fours. He was proud. That made me nervous. And even though my mom tried not to show it, I could tell she was losing sleep over the news.
        “Connor,” he said, as I flicked my finger across the screen, watching his hologram appear in the bench seat facing me. His thick hair still had the unruly waves he passed on to me, even though the faded projection of his holo in the mid-afternoon light made it look less dark.
        “Sir.”
        He nodded at the greeting. It was expected, but he never seemed comfortable hearing it any more than I felt comfortable saying it.
        “Looks like you’re almost there,” he added, glancing over his shoulder.
        Looking with him out the front window, my thoughts stalled as I caught a glimpse of something through the treetops. I don’t know what I was expecting to see on the ride. But I had hoped to see some evidence of humanity’s existence. Some ruins. The remains of a town or city. Anything other than the barren plains and then wilderness I had been watching through the window. With Calista navigating the coach remotely, I might have slept more if I knew it was going to take six hours before I’d see something. But there it finally was, hardly noticeable through the trees. What looked like a stone building—a tower maybe—with the top broken off, jagged and worn and weathered. In seconds it was gone. Committing the fleeting image to memory, knowing I’d invent stories later about what it once was, I knew it was just another place I’d never visit.
        “Connor?”
        “What?” I looked back at my dad, having forgotten his holo was still in the coach with me. “Oh, sorry … yeah, almost there.”
        It wasn’t what I said, but the rolling sigh I made as the words slipped out that resonated exactly how I felt about my situation. Fear, worry, excitement … frustration. It was all in there, swirling around inside me, and now in the coach, and it was enough that my dad cocked his brow as he looked back at me.
        Mom stepped into Dad’s holo bubble and her faded image appeared over his shoulder. “What did we talk about, Connor?”
        “Not to make judgements.”
        “And what are you doing?”
        “Making judgements.”
        “Right.”
        “So, knock it off, Connor,” Dad added with his I’m being clever sort-of grin that never made him look happy, but always made him look like a jerk. “This is a big deal.”
        “Yeah … especially if I fail.” I shifted uneasily in my seat at the thought, refusing to look at either of my parents, even if it was just their holograms.
        “You’re not going to fail.”
        “How do you know?” I blurted, something about the silvery wall around the city growing bigger with each passing second setting my teeth on edge. “You never had to test the fours.”
I shouldn’t have looked but I did, just in time to catch the glare in my dad’s eye and the disapproving eyebrow my mom was shooting me over his shoulder. Feeling stupid, I pursed my lips, knowing I was out of line.
        “I just meant that you guys did alright testing in the threes. I could have made it to Bayside, or even just stayed in New Fields.” The words were bitter on my tongue. I knew it was just worry making me say them the first place. I couldn’t think of a more boring waste of my life than to stay in New Fields. It was the only city I had ever been in. I wasn’t even sure it was better than being exiled to Hellend, despite what I had heard. At least with Hellend I’d see someplace new.
        “But this way, you can choose,” Mom said, the smile returning to her face a little faster than to Dad’s. “And don’t forget, Calista doesn’t set people up to fail … if she didn’t think you had what it took, she wouldn’t have passed you into the fours.”
        “Mom, candidates that fail get sent to oblivion … you know that right?”
        “That’s just a rumor. That’s not true,” Mom said with her I’ve-said-this-a-thousand-times tempo.
        “Quit being so juvenile about it, Connor,” Dad added.
Ignoring my dad’s plucky retort, I went on. “And what makes me so special, anyway? Hillman is smarter than I am,” I huffed.
        “Maybe it’s not all about your brains, Connor,” Mom said.
        “And Hayley is smarter too. She should have been chosen before me. Even having her around would be better than nothing.”
        Dad cocked his head and Mom’s eyes popped. “Sounds like you’re not telling us something, Connor,” Mom said with a curl in her tone.
        “No, Mom, I’m not telling you nothing,” I said quickly.
        Dad turned to Mom and smirked. “Remind me how he tested into the fours with grammar like that.”
Mom shook her head.
        I hardly realized it with the parental spotlight shining so brightly in my eyes, but the coach had left the last of the evergreens behind about a hundred yards back and was rolling to a stop in front of the glass.
        “Sorry, Mom … Dad. I need to go,” I said, glancing quickly at my parents.
        “Good luck, Connor,” Mom said and then because Dad always seemed to think I was in the mood for a pep talk, he added, “Don’t let your guard down, Sport, and you’ll do fine. Talk soon.”
        “Thanks,” I mumbled, strangely irritated by them both as their holos vanished. The pit in my stomach told me I was being petty. It was good advice. Dad was smart even though he hadn’t tested in the fours. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew if the rumors about this city were true, I couldn’t afford to sleepwalk my way through testing like I had in New Fields.
        “Welcome,” Calista said over the intercom in the coach. “The detoxification cycle will begin momentarily. Please stay inside the vehicle.”
        I felt the tingle on the back of my neck at the sound of her voice, and I couldn’t help but smile at her request to stay in the coach. Not only was there was absolutely no way for me to get out of the vehicle unless someone let me out, but outside the city walls, I would have died from acute atmospheric poisoning. The only way out of the coach before the detoxification process had run its full cycle, would have been to blow the door off its hinges with mining charges. Still, I probably would have tried to bash the door open with my forehead if Calista told me to. She spoke with a cadence and a rhythm I couldn’t ignore, almost like she was talking while reclining on a beach somewhere. I wanted to listen.         I couldn’t stop myself—but then again, nobody could, and I figured that’s why she had chosen that voice for herself. Everybody listened when Calista spoke.
        The glass around the city shimmered. It was a strange phenomenon; one I had only noticed that day. At a distance, the static field that protected the city from everything, especially the air, was obvious. It looked like a wall of mercury rising into space. Within a mile or so, it lost its silvery sheen and grew more translucent. Up close, the glass was almost transparent, but even so I knew it was there. We called it glass. It wasn’t. It was actually an impenetrable energy field, rising hundreds of miles into the atmosphere, keeping all of us safe—or imprisoned—it felt the same either way.
        The coach inched closer. The glass sparked. It almost looked as if something had exploded inside of it, instantly turning it to glittering dust. Beyond the glass, the gaping black hole of the tunnel stood ready for the coach, and without a second’s hesitation, the motor hummed. My head swayed back as the coach entered the cleaner, and no sooner were we inside the tunnel then I whipped my head to look back over my shoulder as the glass sizzled back into place.
        The lights in the tunnel snapped on, blinding in the monochromatically white tube that appeared long enough to fit at least a dozen of the single-person coaches, like the one I was in, end to end. My eyes ached at the unrelenting brightness of the cleaner and I winced, blinking quickly trying to get my eyes to adjust. The coach continued forward slowly and I found myself squinting, rubbing my temples and looking at my pants, trying to avoid the blinding lights.
        “Detoxification in process,” Calista said over the coach’s intercom.
        My shoulders relaxed a bit at the sound of her voice. “How long is this gonna take?” I muttered just then noticing the movement out of the corner of my eye.
        The mech-mach was already walking along the length of the tunnel, its chrome skeleton barely visible under the translucent white of its stringy synthetic muscles, its large triangular head roving back and forth as it scanned the front of the coach for signs of contamination. Of all the machines in service, the mechanic machines—mech-machs or just mechs for short—were the ones that gave me the worst nightmares. They looked like really thin, really pale, really dead people that had crawled up from the bottom of an icy lake. It didn’t help that their skulls had a dozen eye sockets to hold all their scanners, either. But what was worse was the way they walked, like wraiths stumbling out of a grave. I knew it was just scanning, checking, probing—lurching—but every time I saw one at work, I couldn’t help but think it had been human once, was undead now and was looking to drag away another victim to a shadowy underworld.
        The mech approached the window, peering through the glass, the iridescent blue of its scanners casting a ghostly glow into the cabin of my coach.
        “There are four minutes, forty-one seconds left in the cycle,” the mech said, not with a mouth, which it didn’t have anyway, but through the intercom of my coach, and with a digitized metallic tone that may as well have been the opposite of sexy Calista. “Would you like a countdown?”
        “No,” I said quickly, shifting in my seat, trying to steady my nerves. I felt like I was coming unglued, the knot in the pit of my stomach growing. I tried to think of something else, but as the mech tapped the window, scraping it with what I might have called a meat hook if I didn’t know it was a finger, I was having some difficulty settling down.
        The mech circled the coach and then lumbered ahead, stopping to one side at the end of the tube. The giant door cracked open, slowly lifting off the ground, revealing a simple narrow paved road as white as the one I rode along for six hours to get here, leading through the center of the apartments to the ocean beyond. As the natural light of the afternoon poured into the tunnel, I felt my mood shift, momentarily happy for not having been cooked in the cleaner, but then instantly frustrated by my own lack of nerve. I didn’t ask to come here, but I couldn’t do anything about it now. And I knew I wasn’t going to survive here long if I didn’t pull myself together.
        Realizing I was clenching my fists, I stretched out my fingers, rolling my neck, feeling it crack. My summer didn’t seem to be staring well. I would change that. I had to.
        As the coach rolled past the leering mech into the sun, I smirked, finding my calm again, Calista’s soothing voice coming over the intercom.
        “Detoxification complete, Candidate Simms. Welcome to Wonder.”

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