The male’s hoarse screams ring across the cattle field, and I look across the dew-draped grass to see the prison door swing open. On either side of the door, two people in yellow are holding out their hands, their faces furrowed with concentration. Another scream rings from inside the prison, along with the clinking of chains.
I shake my head, turning back to my work. The shovel in my hands is made from carbon fiber, but it can still feel heavy after enough hours of scooping cow manure into a truck. It’s a pity there isn’t a superpower for this job.
“Hey,” says Elamar, a few meters away from me. “Are they Banishing someone?”
“Of course they are, Ela.” Mosiah doesn’t look up from his own shoveling. “Didn’t you see the evening broadcast?”
“Oh, you know I don’t listen to those things,” says Ela flippantly.
I frown. “Ela, they’re compulsory,” I say.
Ela has put down her shovel. She walks over to the hip-height electric fence that surrounds the cattle field, looking over it. “What did he do?” she asks.
Mosiah and I exchange glances. “You can’t just walk away from your work,” he says.
“Come on, Deb.” Ela shades her gray eyes with one hand. “Oh – they’re hurting him!”
The pain in her voice drags me from my work. I put down my own shovel and come over to Ela, even though it’s still thirty minutes before my next scheduled hydration break. We’re meant to stick to our schedule, but there’s distress in Ela’s face.
Coming up beside her, I can see why. The male prisoner has been dragged out of the prison. The chains around his knees and torso are controlled by the Second Ring enforcers standing on either side of the door; they lift him into the air, floating him out of the prison door and into the early sunlight. The prisoner is screaming again, although his voice sounds raw with effort. His arms and legs flail uselessly, his fingernails scrabbling on the chain around his chest. He kicks out at the Duris, but his blows miss their yellow-clad bodies by several meters. There’s no fighting the chains.
Still, he tries, and lets out another ear-splitting scream. “You killed her!” he shrieks. “You killed her! How could you kill her?”
“What’s he talking about?” asks Ela.
“Oh, his female raiser,” says Mosiah. “She turned seventy yesterday and had scheduled euthanasia.” He shook his head. “It was all on the microchip. You really should listen to yours, Ela. The mute function is only meant for those who are busy with delicate procedures.”
“Mine is always on mute,” scoffs Ela.
Mosiah and I exchange another glance.
“Why are they Banishing him?” Ela asks.
“He rushed into the medical center,” I say. “Started throwing things around and shouting at the workers. He hurt one of them, too, and she had to be euthanized as well.”
“He hurt her that badly?” says Ela, shocked. “Is he a Duri?”
“No, an Umi, but he didn’t use his powers to do it,” I say. “He stomped on her hand and crushed it beyond repair. The broadcast said that she was useless without it.”
Mosiah shakes his head. “His thinking was so irrational. That raiser was no longer useful to society. Doesn’t he know that her euthanasia was for the benefit of everyone in the Five Rings?”
Ela stares at him. “What would you do if you saw your raiser being taken to euthanasia?” she asks.
He hesitates for a moment. “I would accept it,” he says, “regardless of my emotions. My raiser will be proud to be euthanized at an old age after caring for so many juveniles.”
“And you, Deb?” Ela challenges.
I think of Behab Beastsoother, the female in charge of raising me, and the bitter twist of disappointment on her face each time she looks at me.
“I’ll never see her again, I hope,” I say. “Not once we go for training. And it’s just a little while until that happens.”
The male in chains is still struggling, but I can see he’s growing tired. I feel a deep twinge of horror in my belly that makes me uncomfortable, no matter how sure I am that this man has to be Banished to promote the survival of all the rest of us – the law-abiding rest of us. I look over at him, not wanting to watch. As always, Mosiah’s face is perfectly blank. Sometimes I try to read his eyes, but they are so dark brown they are nearly black, and right now they’re shrouded in mystery.
“The gates are opening,” says Ela, her voice filled with horror. “Oh – look!”
Her gasp drags my attention back to the gate in the enormous fence that surrounds the entire perimeter of the Five Rings. It is four meters high, gleaming with barbed wire and humming with electricity. A meter or two from the fence, the Outside begins: a crowded mass of vegetation, utterly untamed and deadly.
There is only one gate, directly across from the prison, and the Duris are heading toward it with the prisoner floating between them. He has stopped screaming, and his eyes are fixed on the gate. A third Duri steps up beside the others and holds out her hand toward the gate, her eyes intensifying with concentration. They’re only fifty or sixty meters from me, and I can hear the gentle popping as the Duri uses her powers to bend back the bars of the gate.
Before it can swing open, there’s a crackling noise from deep within the wilderness. Ela lets out a little yelp of alarm and seizes my hand in a tight grip.
“Nothing can come into the Rings, Ela,” says Mosiah soothingly. “We’re safe.”
I know we are, but suddenly all I can think of is the fact that that chained prisoner is not safe at all. I have seen Banishments before, of course. The pod I share with Behab is only a few hundred meters from the prison and the gate; we often hear the screams. When I was smaller, I felt relief each time the screaming stopped, knowing that the Five Rings was safer for being rid of some dangerous criminal.
But ever since Jonab was Banished, things have felt different. And I hate the discomfort in my belly as the crackling grows nearer.
“There!” says Ela, pointing.
“Ela, don’t watch.” Mosiah takes her arm, tugging at her. “Come back to work. It’ll only upset you even more, and it’s foolish to be upset at all.”
I turn away, wanting to pretend that none of this is happening. Then Ela shrieks, “It’s a mutant!” and I spin around.
The Duris have flung the prisoner through the opening, and they’re hurriedly sealing it again, their powers manipulating the iron bars to wrap around the gate and seal the wilderness out. The prisoner in his white clothing is a speck of brightness against the dark bushes crowding up towards the fence. It takes me a moment to look where Ela is pointing, but then I spot the way the bushes are whipping and rustling as something huge breaks through. There’s a flash of fur, and then the monster pushes its way into the few meters of clearness between the wilderness and the fence.
It’s huge. Bigger by far than the beef cattle whose manure we’re shoveling. It has great paws, far bigger than cattle hooves but tipped with claws. The shoulders hump like those of our biggest bull, and it has small, glittering eyes. Horns protrude from its shaggy forehead, sharply angled as if designed to charge, to impale.
The creature opens its mouth, baring yellow fangs that drip with saliva.
The male screams. The creature charges, and Mosiah covers Ela’s eyes with his hands. I’m a split second too late in closing mine, and I see the person get thrown up into the air, limp and useless, tossed like a rag on the monster’s horns. Then there are some meaty thuds, and silence.
When we look up, the monster and its meal have gone. There are only smears of blood leading off into the bushes.
* * * *
The silence is a little uncomfortable as we get back to work. Mosiah, as always, seems impassive, as if seeing the male die hasn’t affected him at all. I know he’s right; after all, the male acted with rebellion towards society, and we’ve learned ever since we were very young that rebellion could lead to the worst possible disaster – the collapse of the Five Rings, and the demise of our entire species.
I hate the way it makes me feel to think about the death of that male. I shovel harder than is necessary, hurling the cowpats onto the truck with sharp, jerky movements. We would have no society at all – and human life would be extinct – if it wasn’t for Five Rings law. It is simple: only the fittest survive.
This rebellious male was not fit for survival. And neither was Jonab.
And yet I still can’t stop remembering the way they both screamed.
Ela is also working with more vigor than normal. Even though everyone who has finished basic training does manual work like we’re doing now, Ela has never really pulled her weight. Now, though, she’s shoveling with great fervor. A clod of earth, grass still attached, sails past my head and plops into the truck.
“Ela!” I say. “There was still grazing on that. You shouldn’t waste cattle feed in that way.”
“I can’t stand it!” Ela cries, throwing down her shovel. She looks over at me, her eyes flashing. “How can it be right for someone to be killed like that, just because he wanted to save his raiser?”
Mosiah comes up beside me. “It’s normal to feel upset over these things,” he said. “We must remember that the law exists for the survival of our species.” I recognize his answer, word for word, from the hologram on Banishment that we studied in basic training a few years ago.
“Not for his survival,” says Ela hotly.
I stare at them, unsure of what to say. I know that Mosiah is right, yet I feel the same way that Ela does. It surprises me that two people can be so different even though their appearances are so similar. Like all people adolescents, Ela and Mosiah are wearing plain black clothing, loose-fitting and comfortable. As with everyone else in the Rings, their hair is neatly shaved for hygiene; they have been engineered to be one hundred and seventy-five centimeters tall, and to weigh sixty-five kilograms.
Still, Ela’s gray eyes flash, her chin jutting out as she glares at Mosiah. He looks at her, patient as a stone, his eyes unreadable.
“You are too old for these foolish doubts,” he says calmly. “You must learn to control your emotions, Ela.” His face softens. “For your own sake. It was irrational thinking and rampant emotions that led that male to his Banishment. I would hate to see that happen to you.”
Ela lowers her head.
I go over to her, feeling a strange urge to touch her, even though there’s no real reason to do so. “Just don’t think about it,” I say. “That’s what I did after Jonab was Banished. We know that it was the right thing, even if it doesn’t feel that way.” I shift, hating the memories that try to rise in my belly, and push them down. “Let’s talk about something else instead, and you’ll feel better.”
Ela gives me a weak smile. "I appreciate your words,” she says.
“Think about the Trials,” says Mosiah brightly.
I feel a knot gathering in my stomach, the way it has done at every mention of the Trials. Grabbing my shovel, I get back to work, forcing enthusiasm into my voice. “Yes! Our training will start soon,” I say.
“It’s so exciting. I can’t wait to move to the First Ring for the training,” says Mosiah, his voice bubbling. “Just think of it! In just a few months, we’ll be standing in front of all society, proving our powers and earning our place as adults. We’ll be real Auctis, contributing to the survival of mankind.”
Mosiah’s eyes are shining. I see my own dismay reflected in Ela’s face, but I force myself to share his excitement. “You’ll be a Level 7 for sure,” I say. “Your powers are already pretty strong.”
“That doesn’t matter,” says Mosiah. “The lower levels also have important work to do. Whether I can only keep mice out of pods, or drive herds of cattle to new grazing, I’ll be glad to be doing whatever I can to keep the Five Rings running.”
Mosiah’s eyes are clear, and I realize that he means every word he’s saying. He really is proud to be part of the Rings. I feel the knot in my stomach tighten, and looking over at Ela, I can see that she feels the same way.
I can only hope that we, too, will get that chance. The only other option is Banishment.
* * * *
When my microchip beeps, I’m relieved to be able to put down my shovel. The truck is nearly full; it won’t be long before its sensors alert the Duris responsible for waste removal, and they’ll come down to the field to move the truck to the digester that converts waste into electricity. In basic training, we learned that centuries ago – before 99942 Apophis struck the Earth and destroyed most of mankind – trucks were driven by diesel engines, burning fossil fuels and poisoning the atmosphere.
Now our powers have taken the place of all those toxic energy sources. These powers are central to our society.
And I’m terrified that I might not have them.
I try not to think about this as I walk back across the cattle field, dodging the cows and calves that are grazing on the lush green grass. This is the last sunny day we’ve been scheduled for a while; tomorrow will be rainy. Mosiah, Ela, and I will work regardless. Our clothing is water-resistant, and the rain will be warm, the way it always is.
My pod is just on the other side of the field. I hold up my wrist to the sensor by the gate, which is a glowing sequence of blue lasers. It beeps in recognition, and the lasers disappear for long enough that I can walk through.
The pod looks just like any other living pod in the Fifth Ring: a small, perfectly square building, sitting among the fields of grass. Sheep are grazing around the pod today, and they scatter with little bleats as I pass them. The pod has two windows and one door, all with sharp right angles. Behab must be inside. For once, she’s not standing in the doorway, tapping her foot. I never walk fast enough for her liking.
I feel a brief flash of worry. Behab is a Level 6 Beastsoother, and her job is to help with moving herds of sheep and cattle to the breeding barns, slaughterhouses, and new pastures. She’s good at it, too: her ability to control an animal always amazes me. But things can always go wrong. With large animals, a mistake could lead to a gruesome death.
I know Behab hates me, but I’ve had enough of gruesome deaths for one day.
“Behab?” I call, holding up my wrist to the pod door. It slides aside soundlessly, and I step into the cool, well-lit interior. There is a single room. Two narrow beds are pushed up against opposing corners; a pneumatic hatch protrudes over the single metal table with its stools stored underneath it. Our midday nourishment is waiting on the table already in two metal spheres right by the mouth of the hatch. I hope it’s the liquid this time, not the squishy, mealy solid. I know that its nutritional balance is perfect, but it tastes like air.
“Come here!” Behab calls.
I go over to the other end of the pod, where another door slides open. The sanitary cubicle is tiny – just big enough for the toilet and shower – and it’s already crowded with Behab standing in the shower area. The water is turned off, and she’s fully clothed, facing the toilet. I spot a group of furry little gray figures crowded around the bottom of the toilet.
“Ugh,” I say, disgusted. “Rats again? They’re so unhygienic.”
“Part of living so close to the Edge,” says Behab calmly. “I want you to get rid of them.”
I stare at the rats. Their beady eyes stare back at me. I’m not afraid of them, exactly, but I don’t like the little claws on their pink feet. “You seem to have them under control already,” I say.
“I do. I’ve made it easy for you,” says Behab. “I’ve already made them calm. Now you just need to step in, take over their bodies, and move them out of the pod. I’ll take them across the field and into the Outside.”
I bite my lip, looking at the rats. I know Mosiah could do this easily. He could do it with a whole horde of rats, controlling their bodies with ease, using his powers to invade their brains and take over their motor functions to do whatever he chose.
“Can… can I try with just one at first?” I ask nervously.
Behab gives me a filthy glance. “Debrael, you’re eighteen years old. Your training starts in a matter of days. Any fourteen-year-old juvenile who has finished basic training would be able to manipulate a single rat.”
I stare at her. “I can’t, Behab.”
Behab sighs. “Try with one,” she says. “Then with two.”
I look down at the smallest rat, hoping it will somehow be the easiest to control. Holding out one hand the way I’ve seen Behab do, I close my eyes and focus.
“Reach out with your mind,” Behab coaches, the way she’s done a thousand times before. “You’ll feel them there. Take your time, choose one.”
I take deep breaths, focusing with all my strength, using every trick she’s ever taught me to concentrate my mind. I clear my thoughts and reach out, searching for the presence of another life form. Behab has told me that I’ll know it when I feel it. That it’s like bumping into someone else in a dark room, knowing at once that there’s another presence there.
My breaths start to come hard and fast with effort. I search.
“Come on, Debrael,” says Behab, her voice growing sharper. “Find it!”
I hold my breath, gritting my teeth and searching, feeling desperation spread through my body. There’s nothing here. Absolutely nothing. I’m just a fool standing here in this pod, eyes closed, hand outstretched, achieving nothing at all.
“Breathe!” Behab barks. “Don’t give up!”
“I can’t!” I step back, sucking in huge gulps of air. The rats quiver, but only slightly; Behab has an iron grip on them. “I can’t do it, Behab!” I cry. “I can’t feel them!”
Behab stares at me. The rats stare at me.
“Nothing you say is helping,” I say, stepping back through the door and sinking down onto my bed. “I can’t feel them. I never could. I…” I bite down on my words.
“Well, you need to start working harder, Debrael,” says Behab. “You can’t give up. And you can’t say these things to your trainers at the First Ring, do you understand?”
I nod dumbly, feeling my eyes fill with tears. Behab strides over to me, the rats still in their cowering heap. “Listen to me!” she shouts.
I look up, frightened. Behab is glaring at me, her green eyes cold and harsh in her pinched face. “You must find your powers, and quickly,” she said. “You have to prove yourself at least a Level 1 Aucti at the Trials. I don’t have to tell you what will happen if you turn out to be Powerless.”
She doesn’t. I wait until she’s marched out of the pod, the rats following her in a doomed, obedient line, before I throw myself down on the bed and bury my face in the crook of my arms. The tears flow thick and fast, even though I know they’re fallacious.