We hurry back down from the Hill. I see glimpses of white through the trees, and I know they are not the birds we saw earlier. These white figures
aren’t made for flight. “Officials,” I say to Ky, and he nods.
We report to the Officer, who looks a bit preoccupied with the visitors waiting for us. I wonder again how he ended up with this assignment. Even
supervising the marking of the big Hill seems like a waste of time for someone of his rank. As I turn away, I see all the lines that discipline has
etched in his face and I realize again that he is not very young.
The Officials, I discover when I get closer, are ones I’ve seen before. The ones who tested my sorting abilities. The blond female Official takes
charge this time; apparently this is her portion of the test to administer. “Hello, Cassia,” she says. “We’re here to take you to your on-site portion of
the sorting test. Can you come with us now?” She glances over at the Officer with a touch of deference in her look.
“Go on,” the Officer says, glancing at the others who have returned from the Hill. “You can all go. We’ll meet here again tomorrow.”
A few of the other hikers look at me with interest but not concern; many of us await our final work positions and Officials always seem to be a part
of that process. “We’ll take the air train,” the blond Official says to me. “The test will only last a few hours. You should be home in time for your
We walk toward the air-train stop, two Officials on my right and one on my left. There’s no escaping them; I don’t dare look back at Ky. Not even
when we climb onto the train he takes into the City. When he walks past me, his “hello” sounds perfect: friendly, unconcerned. He continues on down
the length of the car and sits next to a window. Anyone watching would be convinced that he doesn’t feel anything at all for me. He’s almost
We don’t get off the air train at the City Hall stop, or at any of the other stops in the City proper. We keep going. More and more blue-clothed
workers climb on, laughing and talking. One of them cuffs Ky on the shoulder and Ky laughs. I don’t see any other Officials or anyone else wearing
student plainclothes like me. The four of us sit together in the sea of blue, the train twisting and turning like a river running, and I know it’s hard to
fight against a current as strong as the Society.
I look out the window and hope with all my heart that this isn’t what I think it is. That we aren’t going to the same place. That I won’t be sorting Ky.
Is this a trick? Are they watching us? That’s a stupid question, I think to myself. Of course they’re watching us.
Hulking gray buildings crowd around in this part of town; I see signs, but the air train moves too fast for me to read them. But it’s clear where we
are: the Industrial District.
Up ahead, I see Ky shift, stand. He doesn’t have to reach up for the grips hanging from the ceiling; he keeps himself level and balanced as the
train slides to a stop. For a moment, I think everything will be fine. The Officials and I will keep going, past these gray buildings, beyond the airport
with its landing strips and bright red traffic flags whipping in the wind like kites, like markers on the Hill. We’ll go on out to the Farmlands, where
they’ll have me sort nothing more important than a crop or some sheep.
Then the Officials next to me stand up and I have no choice but to follow them. Don’t panic, I tell myself. Look at all these buildings. Look at all
these workers. You could be sorting anything or anyone. Don’t jump to conclusions.
Ky doesn’t look to see if I’ve gotten off, too. I study his back and his hands to see if I can find any of the tension running through him that runs
through me. But his muscles are relaxed and his stride even as he walks around to the side of the building where the employees enter. Many of the
other workers wearing blue plainclothes go through the same door. Ky’s hands are loose at his sides, open. Empty.
As Ky disappears into the building, the blond Official leads me around to the front, to a kind of antechamber. The other Officials hand her
datatags and she places them behind my ear, at my pulse points on my wrists, under the neck of my shirt. She’s quick and efficient about it; now
that I’m being monitored, I try even harder to relax. I don’t want to seem unusually nervous. I breathe deep and I change the words of the poem. I tell
myself to go gentle, just for now.
“This is the food distribution block of the City,” the Official informs me. “As we mentioned before, the goal of the real-life sort is to see if you can
sort real people and situations within certain parameters. We want to see if you can help the Government improve function and efficiency.”
“I understand,” I say, although I’m not sure I do.
“Then let’s get started.” She pushes open the doors and another Official comes to greet us. He’s apparently the Official in charge of this building,
and the orange and yellow bars on his shirt mean he’s involved in one of the most important Departments of all, the Nutrition Department. “How
many do you have today?” he asks, and I realize that I’m not the only one taking the test and completing real-life sorts here. The thought makes me
relax a little.
“One,” she says, “but this is our high scorer.”
“Excellent,” he says. “Let me know when you finish.” He strides away and I stand still, overwhelmed by the sights and smells around me. And by
We stand in a gaping space, a chamber larger than the gymnasium at Second School. This room looks like a steel box: metal floors dotted with
drains, gray-painted concrete walls, and stainless-steel appliances lining the sides and bisecting the middle of the room in rows. Steam mists and
writhes around the room. Vents at the top and sides of the building open to the outside, but there are no windows. The appliances, the foilware
trays, the steaming hot water coming out of the faucets: Everything is gray.
Except for the dark-blue workers and their burned-red hands.
A whistle blows and a new stream of workers comes in from the left while the other workers exit on the right. Their bodies sag, tired, weighted.
They all wipe their brows and leave their work without a backward glance.
“The new workers have been in a sterilization chamber to remove all outside contaminants,” the Official tells me conversationally. “That’s where
they pick up their numbers and adhere them to their uniforms. This new shift is the one you’ll be concerned with.”
She gestures up and I notice several outlook points throughout the room: small metal towers with Officials standing at the top. There are three
towers; the one in the middle of the floor is empty. “We’ll be up there.”
I follow her up the metal stairs, the kind that we have at air-train stops. But these stairs end on a small platform with barely enough space for the
four of us to stand. Already the gray-haired Official perspires heavily and his face is red. My hair sticks to the back of my neck. And all we have to
do is stand and watch. We don’t even have to work.
I knew Ky’s job was hard but I had no idea.
Tubs and tubs of dirty containers stand next to small stations with sinks and recycling tubes. Through a large opening at the end of the building,
the soiled foilware arrives in a never-ending stream, flowing from the recycling bins in our residences and meal halls. The workers wear clear
protective gloves, but I don’t see how the plastic or latex doesn’t melt into their skin as they spray off the foilware containers with hot water. Then
they put the clean foilware down into the recycling tubes.
It goes on and on and on, a steady flow of steam and scalding water and foilware. My mind threatens to glaze over and shut down as it does
when I’m confronted with a particularly difficult sort on the screen and I feel overwhelmed. But these aren’t numbers on the screen. These are
This is Ky.
So I force myself to stay clear and focused. I force myself to watch those bent backs and those burning hands and the vastness of all the refuse
sliding silver along the tracks.
One of the workers raises his hand, and an Official comes down from his perch to confer with the worker. He gives a foilware container to the
Official, who scans the bar code on the side of the container with his datapod. After a moment, he takes the foilware container with him and
disappears into an office at the edge of the large open room. The worker is already back at work.
The Official looks at me as if she’s waiting for something. “What do you think?” she asks.
I’m not sure what she wants, so I hedge. “Of course, the most efficient thing to do would be to get machines.”
“That is not an option,” the Official says pleasantly. “Food preparation and distribution needs to be handled by personnel. Live personnel. It’s a
rule. But we would like to free up more of the workers for other projects and vocations.”
“I don’t see how to make it any more efficient,” I say. “There’s the other obvious answer … to make them work more hours … but they look
exhausted as it is …” My voice trails off, a wisp of steam too small to matter.
“We’re not asking you to come up with a solution.” The Official sounds amused. “Those who are higher up than you have already done that. Hours
will be extended. Leisure hours will cease. Then some of the personnel from this area can be spared for another vocation.”
I’m beginning to understand and I wish I weren’t. “So if you don’t want me to sort the other variables in the work situation, you want me to—”
“Sort the people,” she says.
I feel sick.
She holds out a datapod. “You have three hours to watch. Enter the numbers of the workers you think are the most efficient, those who should be
sent to work on an alternative project.”
I look at the numbers on the back of the workers’ shirts. This is like a sort on the screen; I’m supposed to watch for the faster patterns among the
workers. They want to see if my mind will automatically register the workers who move the most quickly. Computers could do this job and probably
have. But now they want to see if I can do it, too.
“And Cassia,” the Official says from the metal stairs. I look down at her. “Your sort will hold. That’s part of the test. We want to see if you can make
decisions well when you know they have actual results.”
She sees the shock on my face and continues. I can tell she’s trying to be kind. “It’s one shift of one group of menial laborers, Cassia. Don’t worry.
Just do your best.”
“But what’s the other project? Will they have to leave the City?”
The Official looks shocked. “We can’t answer that. It’s not relevant to the sort.”
The gray-haired Official, still breathing heavily, turns back to see what’s happening. She nods to him that she’s on her way down, and then tells
me gently, “Better workers get the better work positions, Cassia. That’s all you need to know.”
I don’t want to do this. For a moment, I contemplate throwing the datapod into one of the sinks, letting it drown.
What would Ky do if he were the one standing up here?
I don’t throw the datapod. I take deep breaths. Sweat runs down my back and a piece of my hair falls into my eyes. I push the hair back with one
hand and then I straighten my shoulders and look out at the workers. My eyes dart from place to place. I try not to see faces, only numbers. I look for
fast patterns and slow ones. I start to sort.
The most disturbing part of the whole experience is that I am very, very good at it. Once I tell myself to do what Ky would do, I don’t look back. Over
the course of the sort, I watch for pacing and patterns and I watch for stamina. I see the slower, more steady ones who get more done than you
might think. I see the quick, deft ones who are the very best. I see the ones who can’t quite keep up. I see their red hands move amid the steam,
and I see the pile of foilware moving along in its silver stream as it turns from dirty to clean.
But I don’t see people. I don’t see faces.
When the three hours are almost over my sort is complete and I know it’s a good one. I know I’ve classified the best workers in the group by their
But I can’t resist. I look at the number of the very middle worker, the one who is right in between the best and the worst of the group.
I look up. It’s the number on Ky’s back.
I want to laugh and cry. It’s as though he’s sending me a message. No one fits in the way he does; no one else has mastered the art of being
exactly average so well. For a few seconds I let myself watch the boy in blue plainclothes with the dark hair. My instincts tell me to put him with the
more efficient group; I know that’s where he belongs. That’s the group that gets the new vocation. They might have to leave the City, but at least he
wouldn’t be trapped here forever. Still, I don’t think I could do it. What would my life be like if he left?
I let myself imagine climbing down from that ladder and pulling Ky close in the middle of all this heat and sound. And then I imagine something
even better. I imagine walking over and taking his hand and leading him out of this place into light and air. I could do this. If I sort him into the higher
group, he won’t have to work here anymore. His life will be better. I could be the one to change that for him. And suddenly that desire, the desire to
help him, is even stronger than my selfish desire to keep him close.
But I think of the boy in the story he’s given me. The boy who has done everything he can to survive. What would that boy’s instincts say?
He would want me to put him in the lower group.
“Almost finished?” the Official asks me. She waits on the metal steps a few feet below. I nod. She climbs toward me, and I pull up another number
of someone who is near the middle so that she doesn’t know I’ve been looking at Ky.
She stands next to me, looking at the number and then out at the person on the floor. “The middle workers are always the most difficult to sort,”
she says with sympathy in her voice. “It’s hard to know what to do.”
I nod, but she’s not finished.
“Menial laborers like these don’t usually live to eighty,” she says. Her voice hushes. “Many of them are Aberration status, you know. The Society
doesn’t worry as much about them reaching optimal age. Many die early. Not horribly early, of course. Not pre-Society early, or Outer Province
early. But sixty, seventy. Lower-level vocations in nutrition disposal are particularly dangerous, even with all the precautions we take.”
“But …” The shock on my face doesn’t surprise her, and I realize that this must be part of the test, too. Coming across an unknown factor in the
middle of an otherwise straightforward sort just when you thought you were done. And I wonder: What’s going on here? Why are the stakes so high
for a test sort?
There’s something happening that is something bigger than me, bigger than Ky.
“This is all confidential information, of course,” the Official says. Then she glances down at her datapod. “You have two minutes.”
I need to concentrate but my mind is off on another sort of its own, asking questions and lining them up to make an answer:
Why do the laborers die early?
Why couldn’t Grandfather share the food from his plate at the Final Banquet?
Why do so many Aberrations work in food cleanup?
They poison the food for the elderly.
It’s all clear now. Our Society prides itself on never killing anyone, having done away with the death penalty, but what I see here and what I’ve
heard about the Outer Provinces tells me that they have found another way to take care of things. The strong survive. Natural selection. With help
from our Gods, of course—the Officials.
If I get to play God, or angel, then I have to do the best I can for Ky. I can’t let him die early and I can’t let him spend his life in this room. There has
to be something better out there for him. I have enough faith left in my Society to think that; I have seen many people living good lives, and I want one
of those lives to be Ky’s. Whether or not I can be a part of it.
I sort Ky into the higher group and close the datapod as if the decision has cost me nothing at all.
Inside, I scream.
I hope I made the right choice.
“Tell me more about where you’re from,” I say to Ky on the Hill the next day, hoping he doesn’t hear the desperation in my voice, hoping he doesn’t
ask about the sort. I have to know more about his story. I have to know if I did the right thing. The sort has changed things between us; we feel
watched, even here in the trees. We speak softly; we don’t look at each other too long.
“It’s red and orange there. Colors you don’t see here very often.”
“That’s true,” I say, and I try to think of things that are red. Some of the dresses at the Match Banquet. The fires in the incinerators. Blood.
“Why is there so much green and brown and blue here?” he asks me.
“Maybe because they are growing colors and so much of our Province is agricultural,” I say. “You know. How blue is the color of water, and brown
the color of fall and harvest. And green is the color of spring.”
“People always say that,” Ky says. “But red is the first color of spring. It’s the real color of rebirth. Of beginning.”
He’s right, I realize. I think of the ruddy color of the tight new buds on the trees. Of the red of his hands the day before in the nutrition disposal
center and the new beginning I hope I have given him.
Warning. Warning. The light on the tracker flashes and words scroll across the screen. You have reached maximum speed earlier than
recommended for this exercise session.
I punch the numbers so that I go even faster.
Warning. Warning. You have exceeded your optimal heart rate.
Usually, when I push too hard on the tracker I stop in time. I take things to the edge but I never jump. But if I go to the edge enough times, I’m going
to get pushed over or fall right in.
Maybe it’s time to jump. But I can’t do it without dragging all the people I love with me.
I’m going too fast. I’m too tired. I know it. But my fall still surprises me.
My foot slips and before I know it I’m down, down on the tracker with the belt still going and burning, burning, burning my skin. I lie there for a
moment, in shock and on fire, and then I roll off as fast as I can. The tracker keeps going, but it will notice my absence in a moment. It will stop and
then they will know I couldn’t keep up. But if I get back on fast enough, no one has to know what happened. I glance at my skin, rubbed raw and red
from the moving belt. Red.
I jump up. I tense my muscles and spring at just the right time and I hit the tracker running. Pound. Pound. Pound pound pound.
My knees and elbows stream blood and I have tears in my eyes, but I am still going. The plainclothes will hide my wounds tomorrow and no one
will ever know that I fell. No one will ever know what happened until it is too late.
When I come back upstairs after running on the tracker, my father gestures me toward the port. “Just in time,” he says. “There’s a communication for
The sorting Officials wait on the screen. “Your sort looks excellent,” the blond Official tells me. “Congratulations on passing the test. I’m sure you’ll
hear news regarding your work position soon.”
I nod my head, sweat dripping off me and blood from my cuts running down my knees and my arms. She can only see the sweat, I think to myself.
I tug my sleeves down a little to make sure they cover everything, so that no one will know that I am injured and bloody.
“Thank you. I look forward to it.” I step back, sure that the portscreen communication is finished, but the Official has one last question for me.
“Are you sure that there aren’t any changes you want to make before the sort is implemented?”
My last chance to take back what I’ve done. I almost say it. I have his number memorized; it would be so easy. Then I remember what she told me
about life expectancy, and the words turn to rocks in my mouth and I can’t speak around them.
I turn away from the port and almost run into my father. “Congratulations,” he says. “Sorry. I hope you don’t mind that I listened. They didn’t say it
was a private communication.”
“It’s fine,” I say. Then I ask, “Did you ever wonder …” I pause, unsure of how to phrase this. How to ask him if he ever doubted his Match with my
mother. If he ever wanted someone else.
“Did I ever wonder what?” he asks me.
“Never mind,” I say, because I think I already know the answer. Of course he didn’t. They fell in love immediately and never looked back.
I go into my room and open my closet. Once it held the compact and the poem. Now it is empty except for clothes and shoes and the small, framed
piece of my dress. I don’t know where my silver box is and I panic. Did they accidentally take it when they took the artifacts? No, of course not. They
know what the silver boxes are. They’d never mistake them for something from the past. The Match Banquet boxes are clearly for the future.
I’m hunting around through my meager belongings when my mother comes into the room. She returned late last night from her third trip out of
Oria. “Are you looking for something?” she asks.
I straighten up. “I found it,” I say, holding up the fragment of green under glass. I don’t want to tell her that I can’t find the Match Banquet box.
She takes the square from me and holds it up, the green fabric from the dress catching the light. “Did you know that there used to be windows
with colored glass?” she asks. “People put them in places where they worshipped. Or in their own homes.”
“Stained glass,” I say. “Papa’s told me about it.” It does sound beautiful: light shining through color, windows as art or tribute.
“Of course he has,” she says, laughing at herself. “I finally submitted that report today, and now I’m so tired I can’t think well.”
“Is everything all right?” I ask. I want to ask her what she meant about the trees that day, why she thought their loss was a warning to her, but I don’t
think I want to know. After the real-life sort I feel like I can’t take any more pressure; I feel as though I already know too much. Besides, my mother
seems happier now than she’s seemed in weeks, and I don’t want to change that.
“I think it will be,” she says.
“Oh, good,” I say. We’re both silent for a moment, looking at my dress under glass.
“Are you going to have to travel again?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she says. “I think that’s finished. I hope.” She still looks exhausted, but I can see that submitting the report has lifted a burden.
I take the memento back from her, and as I do, I have an idea. “Can I see the piece of your dress?” The last time I looked at it was the night
before my Match Banquet. I was a little nervous, and she brought me the dress fragment and told me again the story of their Match with its happy
ending. But so much has changed since then.
“Of course,” she says, and I follow her into her bedroom. The framed bit of fabric sits on a little shelf inside the closet she shares with my father,
along with two silver boxes—hers and Papa’s—that held their microcards and, later, the rings for their Contract. The rings are purely ceremonial, of
course—they don’t get to keep them—and they give the microcards back to the Officials at the Contract celebration. So my parents’ silver boxes
I pick up her dress fragment and hold it up. My mother’s gown was blue and thanks to preservation techniques, the satin is still bright and lovely in
I put it next to mine along the windowsill. Together, side by side, I imagine that they look a little like a stained-glass window. The light behind them
brightens them, and I can almost imagine that I could look through the colors and see a world made beautiful and different.
My mother understands. “Yes,” she says. “I imagine the windows looked something like that.”
I want to tell her everything but I can’t. Not now. I am too fragile. I am trapped in glass and I want to break out and breathe deep but I’m too afraid
that it will hurt.
My mother puts her arm around me. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” she asks gently. “Is it something to do with your Match?”
I reach for my dress fragment and take it down from the window so my mother’s sits up there alone. I don’t trust myself to speak, so I shake my
head. How can I explain to my perfectly Matched mother everything that has happened? Everything I’ve risked? How can I explain to her that I’d do it
again? How can I tell her that I hate the system that created her life, her love, her family? That created me?
Instead, I ask, “How did you know?”
She reaches for her frame and takes it down, too. “At first, I could see that you were falling deeper and deeper in love, but I didn’t worry about it
because I thought your Match was perfect for you. Xander is wonderful. And you might be able to stay in Oria, nearby, since both of your families
live here. As a mother, I couldn’t imagine a better scenario.”
She pauses, looking at me. “And then I was so busy with work. It took until today for me to realize that I was wrong. You weren’t thinking of
Don’t say it, I beg her with my eyes. Don’t say that you know I’m in love with someone else. Please.
“Cassia,” she tells me, and the love in her eyes for me is pure and true and that’s what makes her next words cut deep, because I know she has
my best interests at heart. “I’m married to someone wonderful. I have two beautiful children and a job I love. It’s a good life.” She holds out the piece
of blue satin. “Do you know what would happen if I broke this glass?”
I nod. “The cloth would disintegrate. It would be ruined.”
“Yes,” she says, and then it’s almost as if she’s speaking to herself. “It would be ruined. Everything would be ruined.”
Then she puts her hand on my arm. “Do you remember what I said the day they cut the trees down?”
Of course I do. “About how it was a warning for you?”
“Yes.” She flushes. “That wasn’t true. I was so worried that I wasn’t acting rationally. Of course it wasn’t a warning for me. It wasn’t a warning for
anyone. The trees simply needed to come down.”
I hear in her voice how badly she wants to believe that what she says is true, how she almost does believe it. Wanting to hear more, but not
wanting to push too hard, I ask, “What was so important about the report? What makes it different from other reports you’ve done?”
My mother sighs. She doesn’t answer me directly; instead, she says, “I don’t know how the workers at the medical center stand it when they’re
working on people or delivering babies. It’s too hard to have other lives in your hands.”
My unspoken question hovers in the air: What do you mean? She pauses. She seems to be deciding whether or not to answer me, and I hold
perfectly still until she speaks again. Absentmindedly she picks up her dress fragment and begins polishing the glass.
“Someone out in Grandia, and then in another Province, reported that there were strange crops popping up. The one in Grandia was in the
Arboretum, in an experimental field that had been fallow for a long time. The other field was in the Farmlands of the second Province. The
Government asked me and two others to travel to the fields and submit reports about the crops. They wanted to know two things: Were the crops
viable as foodstuffs? And were the growers planning a rebellion?”
I draw in my breath. It’s forbidden to grow food unless the Government has specifically requested it. They control the food; they control us. Some
people know how to grow food, some know how to harvest it, some know how to process it; others know how to cook it. But none of us know how to
do all of it. We could never survive on our own.
“The three of us agreed that the crops were definitely usable as foodstuffs. The grower at the Arboretum had an entire field of Queen Anne’s
lace.” My mother’s face changes suddenly, lights up. “Oh, Cassia, it was so beautiful. I’ve only seen a sprig here and there. This was a whole field,
waving in the wind.”
“Wild carrot,” I say, remembering.
“Wild carrot,” she agrees, her voice sad. “The second grower had a crop I’d never seen before, of white flowers even more beautiful than the first.
Sego lilies, they called them. One of the others with me knew what they were. You can eat the bulb. Both growers denied knowing you could use the
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested