Created so our Union lasts.
Seven colors, Black and White—
Keep our Union future bright.
Violet heeds the servant call.
Indigos are helpmates all.
Management is left to Blue.
Health belongs to Greenish hue.
Yellow creates for Union needs.
Orange trains the castes for Union deeds.
Leaving Red to shepherd all.
All castes answer our Union’s call.
Beyond the colors, above the caste
Black maintains the laws they’ve passed.
Overseeing us all, as is their right,
The Union dons the color White.
Their shining light above us ever,
May the Union live forever.
Mary Jones stood at a forgotten place where the ocean met the land, basking in her solitude. No one would disturb her. Anywhere you weren’t supposed to be was off limits. And she wasn’t supposed to be there.
She didn’t care. Every chance she got, she trekked the many blocks to stand on this strip of land between the ocean and the bay. It calmed her. It strengthened her. It made her believe she was capable of facing what lay ahead, when most days she didn’t feel competent enough to get out of bed.
Above her, a twisted hulk stretched into the air like a man straining toward a loved one torn from his embrace. On the opposite side of the strait, she could almost make out another structure reaching back through the fog.
Or maybe she was only remembering it was there.
On sunny days, she could see across the thick belt of water where another twisted husk waited. Two corroded towers between the shores of the strait rose from the waves—silent guardians of a past she would never know.
Her fingers traced, yet again, the strange symbols rising off a brass plate at the base of her forgotten friend. The squiggles might’ve once told what the expanse was for, but their meaning had been lost. Below her, the surf crashed against the rocks and silently slithered back into the bay, whispering secrets in a language she wished to understand.
Turning her back on her favorite mystery, she directed her eyes across the bay toward the hills, wondering if the upper castes who resided there knew what any of it meant. Surely those people would’ve been taught these things. Mary was certain that at some point in the distant past, someone believed this structure important enough to build. It ought to be important enough for someone to remember, even after all the intervening years.
But if anyone still understood, they would never tell someone like her. She was nothing. To them or to anyone else.
Trailing her fingers through the rust, she tried to let go of the agony brought on by struggling against her caste. In this place, between the ocean and the bay, her caste level didn’t matter. The structure behind her didn’t care if she was a lowly Indigo or a lofty Red. After so many years in the foundling home, she found structures were better company anyway. The wasted creation above never pointed and laughed at her questionable parentage. It never shunned her because her clothing was a coarser cloth or a poorer color. The warped and corroded metal simply stood, making her hope perhaps once upon a time people hadn’t cared about such things either. Clearly, if men could build such mysterious monuments, they wouldn’t have had time to dwell on origins and castes.
Her gaze drifted partway along the coast. Nestled inside the grid of streets stood her other favorite place in the city. Nothing more than sandy brick and dusty windows, without any outstanding characteristics to draw anyone’s attention, the building remained prominent amongst the surrounding derelicts. Like its brethren, it showed signs of age. Unlike them, it wore its age proudly. A cracked windowpane here, a crumbling brick there. Minor details that did nothing to associate the structure with the stolid sentinels around it. None of the others would ever rise to the grandeur it was still wrapped in.
Mary never saw bright eyes peeking from between the heavy draperies but each time she watched, she was certain they were there. Somehow, she knew a warm body sat tucked away inside, secure behind the folds of cloth. She couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Maybe tomorrow she would visit. Perhaps then she would summon the courage to quench her curiosity.
If there was time. Between work and sleep, she never had enough time. The Union made it their business to keep every citizen busy busy busy. Only by stealing moments here and there could she even visit this place.
From her perch, she could see the first bright fingers of dawn, inching over the hills to chase away the mist. Their arrival was her cue and, as much as she hated the thought of the day ahead, she turned her feet away from the mystery of the building.
The first dozen steps were little more than the shuffle of a child sent off to bed too soon. When a bell sounded in the distance, though, her heart seized against her ribs and then began racing. Her pace quickened. Soon, she was running.
“Late again,” her superior would say with a terse shake of his head. She would be shuttled into her cube and set to do twice the work, if only as punishment for her transgressions. If she worked very hard, she might be allowed to leave before the clock blinked twelve.
Not until she reached the two-story building that held her workhome did she finally slow her pace. She gasped for breath like the fish the Violet fishermen pulled from the bay with their great nets. Just a few more moments, she thought as she tried to return herself to some semblance of normal. Surely, they can wait a few more—
“You okay?” said a rough voice behind her. “Look pretty done in to me. Sick maybe? You want I should get some help?”
Turning, Mary opened her mouth to answer, but the bright purple of his coverall and the vidcam above them had her swallowing her reply. Her lateness, combined with her other transgressions, ensured a fresh heap of trouble and additional black marks on her record. And if that wasn’t enough, talking to a Violet would ruin her for sure. If the Union Guard was watching the playback, that was. Most days they didn’t bother to check the vidcams in the workhome sector but the way her luck always ran, today would be the day. The Violet would probably get the worst of it, the lowest caste was always in the wrong, but she couldn’t afford to have another addition to what had to be a very thick file embossed with ‘Mary Jones, I246’ somewhere in the recesses of the UG’s headquarters.
Giving him no more than a quick nod, she pushed herself away from the lamppost. His dark eyes narrowed and he reached out to steady her. Shrugging his hands away, she let out a hiss of breath and said, “Get back to work before they see you.” One quick tug to straighten her own deep blue coverall made her as ready as she would ever be.
The Violet was still standing on the sidewalk staring after her when she approached the entrance. In the reflective glass of the door, she noticed how his eyes clouded with dismay and she wondered whether they would as easily sparkle with laughter. She might’ve enjoyed talking to him. In another world.
But this was the only world she had.
Shaking away such thoughts, Mary stepped into the dim interior of her workhome. The lattice of cubicles was nearly silent, but from each cube drifted the soft voices of her fellow interpreters. A sea of indigo- clad bodies hunched over their vidscreens, watching whichever Union program they’d been assigned, their hushed voices providing feedback to their recorders. No head peered out from its assigned space. No face poked above the divider to see who was late again.
She walked around the edge of the grid, taking the long way toward her own cube to avoid the seeking eyes of her supervisor. If she could slip inside and get to work before he noticed, maybe this latest incident wouldn’t bring another penalty to her account. Thinking about her growing number of debits to the Union, she cringed. Every day, through her own stupid errors, the amount she owed increased far faster than her ability to earn credits. At this rate, she would never be free.
Luck was with her for once. Her boss hadn’t seen her duck into her cube. With a grateful sigh, she settled behind the screen inside her space. Her assigned material had begun playing at her assigned worktime, as always, so she missed the beginning of the program she was set to interpret. But she was used to the problem. With no means to ever make the feed start over, she’d gotten quite inventive with her interpretations. Pushing an earplug in, she caught the end of a tirade from one of the characters. The story was almost verbatim of yesterday’s piece, and she opened her mouth to tell the Union a change in the script was needed.
The harsh voice dried up the words in her throat. When she didn’t immediately answer, it barked again.
“Mary! Mary Jones!”
She turned her eyes toward the sound, but all she could see were shadows. “Yes, Mr. Dayton?” she inquired softly, recognizing the voice and hoping she could avoid the worst of his anger today. She didn’t hope too hard.
As he stepped out from between the cubes, she could see his ruddy complexion growing redder by the second. “What’s your excuse this time?” His question came out clipped, as if any delay was choreographed specifically to irritate him.
“Did you think I wouldn’t notice your cube’s been empty for the past half-hour?”
Her shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry, sir. It was the… My home vidset… Must be something wrong with the… I didn’t hear the call to work again this morning. I’ll call someone to come out and look at—”
“What makes you think I give a damn about your excuses?” He puffed out his amorphous chest. His blue coverall stretched across it like a water bubble about to burst.
“But you just asked—”
“Talking back to a higher caste? You are pushing the limits of the good graces of the Union. After what you’ve done, of course, I shouldn’t have expected anything better.” Pointing one thick finger down the aisle, he gazed toward the ceiling as if he didn’t want to have to look at her. “The Union has released you from this job. Pack your personals and present yourself in my office.”
Mary palled. The horror of being released from her workhome hovered at the back of her mind with each tardy arrival, but she never honestly believed it would happen. She needed this job just to meet her weekly debits. Sure, the Union would find another placement for her, but being released from a job only ever meant a downward shift. She thought again of the Violet lingering on the sidewalk, of the ones who fished the bay or cleaned the gutters, and a fine sheen of sweat chilled her to the bone.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said with her head held low. Maybe if she groveled enough, she could appease his anger. “It won’t happen again. I’ll work extra hours tonight… Be in super early tomorrow… Anything…”
“I’m positive it won’t happen again. I cannot allow it to happen again.” His tone of voice froze her to the core. “Now do as you’re told.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
An evil grin split his face and he strode toward his office without another word.
As she picked over the scant items she could call her own, a few brave faces peeked out from their cubes. None of them cared. They were merely curious about who had been released, glad the axe had fallen on someone else’s neck. No matter how much the Union tried to instill the idea that work was a privilege, no one worked as hard as they should. The other interpreters were no exception. They knew they could be next to face release and the shame it brought. They’d been spared. This time.
Why she had been singled out for release escaped her comprehension. As she shuffled toward the last cube on the left, her mind raced from one possibility to the next, settling on none. In the end, she had to admit she’d finally pushed her luck to the edge of its limits.
Stretched so far, it had finally burst.
Like every other morning Joe Dayton, B112, sat behind his plasticine desk, a heavy scowl creasing his portly face. This morning, however, would be the last she’d see of him. The Union never reassigned a person to the same workhome. At least that’s something positive, she thought, but she wasn’t sure the benefit was worth the cost.
“Do you have any idea why you’re being released?” The way he asked made it seem like he knew the answer but enjoyed asking anyway.
“I assume it was because I was late again, but I can explain—”
“Hush!” He shook his head and then snapped his fingers in her face. “That’s how much the Union cares about your excuses for shirking your duty.”
He smiled again, and Mary wished he would stop. His smile always reminded her of the bedtime stories at the foundling home—all of those vicious monsters who bared dripping fangs before eating bad, little girls.
“Despite what you may think, your release is not due to your lateness. Although, in my opinion, that should be reason enough.” He poked one finger into the center of his other palm as he spoke, giving Mary the feeling he would stab her just as easily if he could.
“No,” he said. “The Union has found you to be incompetent at your present occupation.”
Dayton spoke his words like he was reciting the script for a vid in which he was the only actor. “You will be reassigned to a position more in keeping with your abilities. Which is to say… None. I expect you’ll be gutting fish by this time tomorrow. Or maybe you’ll be graced with an assignment to work in a greenhouse, sweltering in the heat and covered with dirt.” A small snort broke from between his wet lips. “In my opinion, you deserve worse.”
Her face fell and his grin grew wider. If he got much happier, he could probably swallow her whole. “I really am very sorry, sir. Please don’t release me. I promise it won’t happen again.”
“A promise you can’t keep is no promise at all,” Dayton said, reciting a quote from the Union vids. Suddenly, the pale blue of his coverall made his eyes appear colorless. Mary felt like she was peering at gaping holes into his brain. “This isn’t about your inability to arrive at work in a timely fashion. It is about your not being able to do the job our great Union has spent untold resources training you for. They’ve coddled you along for too many years now, but someone has rectified the error and the Union has given up on you.” He sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose as if she were garbage. “You no longer have value here.”
His words landed like physical blows, and she had to steel herself from shying away. To have no value was the worst thing Mary could imagine. Nothing was lower than a Violet, and even they had value. “Please, sir. I’ll work harder. I’m not useless. I have value. Please—”
“Be quiet! You’re finished here. I insist you leave these premises at once. The Union will give you your reassignment before the day’s end. I truly feel sorry for whatever doomed supervisor gets you this time.”
With no hope of changing the Union’s directive, she hung her head and turned to leave, his final words chasing her down the aisle. “Personally, Miss Jones, I hope they turn you into a slave. It’s more than you’ll ever deserve.”
Ducking her head and jamming her hands into pockets filled her meager possessions, she let her feet carry her away. Melancholy threatened to overwhelm her. It had been the only workhome she’d known since they released her from training five years before. And now it was as off-limits to her as the structure where she’d started her day. As off-limits as everything else she wanted.
Once outside, she allowed her feet to choose her path, but they led her away from her sleeping quarters instead of toward them. The Union’s laws demanded she rush back and pack for quick removal to a place more suited to a Violet. But she was in no hurry. Oh, they’d punish her for this additional transgression, but at the moment, she didn’t care. She didn’t want to sit in the tiny quarters she’d occupied for all her adult life, waiting for them to move her someplace worse. Listening to the unit’s vidset bark out its unending stream of Union messages would only underscore the fact they’d declared her incompetent.
The word echoed in her ears until she couldn’t stand it any longer. After all the years spent listening to how much she owed the Union, and all the effort she wasted trying to be exactly what they wanted her to be, the announcement she’d failed was the worst thing anyone could have told her.
Even the years of vicious taunting from the other foundlings had been sweet whisperings compared to this. At the home, there had always been ways to disappear, hiding in a closet or cowering under a stairway until they found another target for their cruelty. If only she could escape as easily from Mr. Dayton’s voice reverberating through her head.
Unmindful of the time and lost to her surroundings, her purposeless steps brought her to stand in front of the sandy brick building. Mary didn’t know how long she’d been standing in front of the odd, little place. She wasn’t even sure why she didn’t simply go inside. Nothing was stopping her now. She could walk through the doors and present herself to its residents. They would welcome her like a long-lost friend, the way she’d imagined since she discovered the place years ago wandering from her sleeping quarters to her workhome.
She didn’t know where the feeling came from, but it was like a word on the tip of her tongue or a quick of movement out of the corner of her eye. A niggling, hidden memory so close to the surface she could touch it, but when she tried, it became mere ripples on the water. The place simply called to her, so elusive and yet so enticing. Today, she could finally figure it out. If she had the courage to take the first step.
She cast her gaze up and down the street. Empty. Everyone was working at their assigned job somewhere in the vast city. Everyone but her. It was the law. If you weren’t working, you weren’t serving the Union. And to not serve the Union was tantamount to stealing.
If she stood too much longer—empty street or not—she would draw attention. Before too long, the UG would notice her loitering. A guard in his black uniform would step from the shadows, followed by others, until they surrounded her and dragged her away.
If she was going to do anything, it had to be now.
“Well?” she said, prodding her wayward feet into action. “You brought me this far.”
Her heart raced as she took her first hesitant steps toward the structure. The air was somehow harder to breathe, but she needed to know what was inside. The craving took precedence over what would happen if the UG caught her approaching a building she wasn’t authorized to enter.
Within seconds, she found herself on the stoop. There the fear caught up with her again. It whispered she could be invading someone’s sleeping quarters, their safe haven away from the Union’s eyes. It told her she would get caught. It hinted that whoever was inside wouldn’t want her.
That last fear was the worst of all. Whatever the Union could and would do to her, the thought she wouldn’t be wanted, here of all places, almost turned her toward her own sleeping quarters. But she wasn’t wanted there either. Torn between fear of the known and of the unknown, her hand hung halfway between clutching her chest and knocking.
Before she could think, her hand thrust forward and three sharp raps echoed in the stillness.
No one was home.
I hope you enjoyed it. Look for the book to be released on Wednesday, February 21st (so only a few days to wait, eh?) for the super-low introductory price of 99c. It'll go up to its regular price of $2.99 after a couple days, so get it early and save. (And if you miss the sale, it's only $2 more, right?)