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When my parents submitted their physical requests and DNA to the Batching Chamber, they applied for me to look mostly like my mother but with my father’s eye color. That’s how I ended up with soft ruby curls and emerald eyes. It worked out fine, for the most part. I wish I knew who to blame for the rest.
My eyes often appeared dull compared to my father’s green gaze because they lacked a key attribute of living in the Cavern—they didn’t glow. Glowing eyes were an engineered product of living in the Cavern; otherwise, citizens might regularly bump into each other even with the low light provided by LED bulbs. But something had gone wrong during my batching cycle, and I had grown up as a freak.
My defective eyes detracted from any beauty or strength my parents had gifted me with because they pinned me as an outcast. This noticeable flaw made me a defect in the surrounding world of perfection—and they were the reason I needed to succeed. Today was Duel Day, and I could make my place among the Cavern or I could lose it, and I planned to make it.
“Meraleen,” my mother called from the kitchen, breaking me out of my thoughts. “Are you almost ready?”
“Oh bats,” I cursed under my breath as a rush of dread and excitement flooded my veins. I glanced at the lavatory mirror and down at my uniform for any imperfections. The white fabric clung to my long frame; the gray reflectors along my limbs, as well as the front and back of my torso, gleamed in the low light of the lavatory. Flawless.
I walked down the small hallway to the kitchen where my mother sat at the dull, metallic table reading on her portablet. She looked up at my entrance and smiled.
I grimaced nervously in what I hoped looked like a smile and reached for the pantry door. I grabbed two blueberry-egg protein bars and scarfed them down. They were dry and crunchy and scraped the sides of my throat. I grabbed a metal cup from the cupboard and filled it with vitamin-enriched D-water from the faucet. The water felt cool and soothing, and it helped calm my anxious insides.
“You’re going to do great, Mera,” my mother’s comforting voice sounded behind me. I turned around and saw her studying me from her place at the table. Her smile was small and appeared wistful.
Her calm face was a mirror of my own—pale, near-glowing skin set on high cheekbones, fine bronze eyebrows, and dark ruby hair.
I shrugged off her assurances and avoided her bright sapphire-colored eyes. I thought they were beautiful, but they were too much a reminder of my own deformity right now. Even though I sometimes convinced myself there was a purpose to my defective eyes. But then I’d be hissed at, threatened, or even attacked by my classmates, and I knew there was no reason. I was just doomed to be a freak.
The only thing that saved me from being thrown in the River was the protection of my parents, who didn’t subscribe to the perfection mandate of the Cavern. But their love and high status would only carry me so far. It made me wonder sometimes—even if I succeeded on my Duels, would I ever be good enough for the Cavern?
“You’ll do fine,” my mother repeated more insistently. She could always tell when I was filled with doubt. I looked up to thank her as she glanced down at her portablet. “Mera, you need to go! You’ll be late!”
I tossed the cup into the sink and apologized for not cleaning up my mess as I gave her a quick peck on the cheek. I skipped the short distance to the door and dashed out. Normally, I waited a second for my eyes to adjust to the lower light of the Cavern—I needed to with the absence of the engineered eyeglow—but I knew my way to the Instruction Center. I could have found it in complete darkness; I’d gone there almost every day since I was five years old.
Running was strictly prohibited throughout the Cavern—what if someone were injured in the near-darkness?—so I took the straight paths at a brisk walk. Dim LED lights dotted the path every few feet. I weaved through the few citizens, using the glow of their eyes and the reflectors on their suits to navigate.
I made my way across the entire Cavern to the Central Instruction Center, or CIC. I didn’t have a handheld timekeeper, but by the lack of people on the walkways I knew I had precious few minutes to enter the Instruction Center, make my way to the main combat area, and find my place in formation.
I reached the door and glanced down the low-lit hallways. The antiquity, math, language, and science rooms were empty. The children and teenagers from the Fives, Tens, and Fifteens groups would be waiting where my group, the Twenties, prepared themselves for their greatest challenge before reaching adulthood.
I took the last set of stairs two steps at a time—the biggest combat area was on the roof of the CIC—and burst out of the door back into the cool Cavern air. The people within the immediate vicinity were illuminated by large spotlights, and I saw their expressions turn to sneering glares when they realized it was me. Some people noticeably stepped back and turned away, and it wasn’t my imagination when I heard hisses of “freak” start to sound.
I squared my jaw and refused to duck my head. This was my Duel Day after all, and I shouldn’t have to shy away from prejudiced people. I wouldn’t let the whispers cloud my head either. I walked through a widening path in the crowd. Make way for the defect, I thought, holding my head high and refusing to meet anyone’s gaze.
There were more people gathered than usual and several I didn’t recognize. Duelers, instructors, Service members, and the other age groups from the Cavern and two Tunnels milled about on the roof. Small groups of children and teenagers stood at attention in the corners, waiting to begin their own Tests of Passage. Each age group had a physical test every five years, which coincided with the Lighting and Batching Ceremonies that would be held over a few days. Fives performed an individual routine proving what they learned their first year of combat training; Tens disassembled and reassembled various weapons under simulated stress; Fifteens completed a simulation using the weapons. And Twenties dueled.
All the Twenties, forty students combined from the Cavern and Tunnels, stood atop black mats in row formation facing a tall, thin man with sparse, gray hair and glowing lapis eyes. Instructor Saun glanced up and down the rows with a steel gaze, stopping every so often, as if he looked for someone specific.
I snuck in behind my best friend, Ata, just before Saun began speaking to the Twenties and everyone else on the roof. Half of the Duelers were from the smaller Instruction Centers in the East and West Tunnels. Tunnel citizens usually only traveled the couple hours to the Cavern every five years for the Lighting Ceremony and to participate in the Tests of Passage. I recognized many of them from previous tests, but we had never been friendly. I didn’t have much time to examine my peers before Saun began his speech.
“Over five hundred years ago, after the Descent, the five Saviors feared that their descendants might be attacked by enemies on the Surface. They began teaching all students and citizens the way of the warrior and eventually created the Tests of Passage. The Duel is one of the greatest Tests of Passage a young person will take. It helps define his or her role going forward into adulthood. Yes, it is a test to decide if one may become a Service member.” My stomach fluttered at the mention of the Service; it was my dream assignment to become a soldier for the Cavern.
“But the Duel can also define who you are as a member of the Cavern. Will you be able to protect your family? Will you protect your community against the dangers of the Surface and other grave threats? Or will you fail?” He glared down each row, and I could have sworn his eyes lingered on me a moment longer.
“Form the barrier,” Saun called out. We broke the rows and marched to the edge of the spotlit mats where the forty of us formed a circle around Instructor Saun. The rest of the citizens on the roof stood behind my section of the circle, waiting to be released to begin their tests.
I caught a glimpse of a dark man taller than everyone around him, though no one stood too close. He received the same sideways glances I’d seen my entire life, but I couldn’t place why...
His arms were crossed over his massive frame and he stared at our forming circle with dark, nearly black eyes. He clearly wasn’t a student, and he looked too young to be a parent. I knew all the instructors by sight, if not by name. Is he one of the Service members? I saw people standing at attention behind him, keeping their eyes on his back as if waiting for a command. Then it clicked why so many stared at him with apprehension. His eyes didn’t glow; he was defective like me. I stifled a gasp and turned away.
He was Director of the Service, could-change-my-life-forever Azai. I’d heard rumors that the youngest Director in over three hundred years also had a noticeable flaw, but I hadn’t seen him in public to know what that was.
I peeked over my shoulder. He was staring at me. Not staring in my general direction but looking straight at me. I jerked my head back to face the circle.
Azai was looking at me. At me. I couldn’t fail if he was watching. There was no other option, not that there ever was for a defect like me. I would prove to Azai and everyone else I was more than Soman and Kilara’s freak daughter, that I was more than a smear across the Cavern’s perfect canvas.
Copyright © 2019 Apryl K.B. Lopez
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