Chapter One: Launching Day
Elian Kwon had turned 15-years-old, and that meant that she could start working.
Legally, at least.
She slept through her family's birthday wishes, curled up on her mattress underneath the window. Her parents and brothers boarded the 5:00am train, leaving her home alone until she would be taken to have a career chosen for her. Elian didn't have to start working right on her birthday. She could've stayed in Grey Hook, treated herself to something sweet and spend the day on the roof of her apartment building looking out over the valleys and mountains of Rush City, but she didn't want to. Elian wanted to work, and she didn't care what kind of job she got. Work was work, and money was money.
Elian opened her eyes at 7:00am. A thin shaft of sunlight fell over her stomach, and she watched the dust motes dance in its light for a few moments before she decided to get up. On a normal day, she would either stay in the apartment and clean or go out and look for odd jobs to do. Somebody always needed something cleaned or something delivered, but that was illegal work, and she was putting it behind her. She could finally feel like she was helping to take care of her family.
Elian tied her straight, black hair into a braid before getting up from her mattress. She crossed the cold stone floor of the tiny apartment to the closet, where she picked out a pair of pants, a shirt, a jacket, and a hat. All of her clothes used to belong to her brothers, so none of them fit her right. She had some clothes of her mother's, but she wasn't going to waste a good skirt or blouse on a Launching Day.
A fist banged on the door and Elian jumped and screamed.
"ELIAN KWON!" boomed a deep voice.
Struggling into her boots, Elian stumbled to the front door and pulled it open. A tall, bald man with tanned skin, dressed in the red and black uniform of an enforcer, stood in the doorway. He held a simple notepad by his side, and looked down at Elian with beetle-black eyes. One other boy stood behind him with his head down.
"Are you Elian Kwon?" he said.
"Your number is 24-605. Come with me."
Elian went with him, trailing behind him and the other boy. He was a tall, gangly thing with gaunt cheeks and thick eyebrows. He had the same hooded, almond-shaped eyes and pale ocher skin as Elian, but she didn't know him and had never seen him around her part of Gray Hook before.
They boarded the building's elevator, where a poster of the old Grand Premier hung on the ceiling, looking down at the three of them. The boy's shoulders were hunched and his head hung low. Elian could see his shoulders shaking slightly. Poor thing, he's nervous, she thought. She didn't understand why. Launching Days weren't special occasions at all. You were randomly selected for a job, and then you were sent on your way. Nothing to be nervous about. She still wondered why the boy was shaking.
"Do you know how Launching Days work?" asked the enforcer.
"I do," said Elian. She turned to the boy. "Do you know how they work?"
His eyes flitted to Elian, and he shook his head.
"It's nothing big," she said. "They give you a number, they call your number, and then they give you a job. It's nothing to be nervous about, okay? Launching Days happen all the time."
"This Launching Day will be the most important moment of your life," interjected the enforcer. "You will be given a career that will determine the path of your future. You will officially become a worker of The Domain. From this day forward, everything you do will be for the good of The Domain."
Elian rolled her eyes at the boy. A small smile touched his lips, but his shoulders were still shaking. Elian didn't know the boy at all, but she knew that he would've grown up hearing the same mantra: 'It is an honor to work for the betterment of The Domain.'
"You will not be working for money or for food," the enforcer continued. "You will be working for a better tomorrow for all of us. You will make our Grand Premier proud."
Elian bit her lip.
Elian lived on the fifth floor, so it didn't take them long to reach the bottom of the building. Elian and the boy followed the enforcer out of the building and onto the sidewalk. The buildings in Gray Hook were tall and packed together, especially in the center of it where Elian lived. Even during the day, the streets were dim, lit only by lights from small businesses, restaurants, and stores and big television screens that showed the face of celebrities and occasionally The Grand Premier. The streets were always wet and dirty, but that didn't stop the homeless from making a gutter or an alleyway their home for the day.
Out in the middle of the street a trolley was waiting for them. It was mostly empty, save for the driver and a few people who went to work later in the day. The trolley would take from the center of Gray Hook to its edges, where the train station waited. Elian had never ridden the trolley; she never needed to. Most of what she needed was right there in the center of Gray Hook. Elian put a hand on her stomach as she felt a knot form there. Maybe this was what was scaring the boy; something new and unknown.
She and the boy boarded the trolley after the enforcer. He sat near the front, and the two of them sat behind him.
"My name's Elian," she said to the boy. "Call me Eli. Who are you?"
"I-I'm Rick. Rick Kim."
"This your first time on the trolley?"
Elian let out a small shot when the trolley shook to life and began moving forward. She clutched her stomach as the trolley gained in speed through the streets of Gray Hook. She remembered feeling this way when she had come down with a bad cold when she was younger. She threw up a lot and she was always nauseous and light-headed. She felt the exact same way on the trolley. She groaned and rested her head against the cool glass of the window and just wanted the ride to be over.
All of Gray Hook looked the same, almost no different from Elian's little corner of it. Some of the streets were wider, with market stalls instead of store fronts. In some places, the skyscrapers and towering tenements relented, letting a little bit of sun reach down through canopies of clotheslines and smog. The streets and sidewalks were still dirty and wet, the homeless and jobless resting against buildings or in alleyways.
The trolley stopped at the train station. Elian sighed with relief as her stomach calmed down; she never wanted to do that again. She would walk back to her home at the end of the day.
The train station wasn't meant to be nice or decorative in any kind of way. It was simply there to get the workers to their jobs. The steel façade looked mercilessly down at the streets of Gray Hook, its face plastered with posters of The Grand Premier and happy, smiling workers. A man's voice from the speakers shouted "WORK FOR YOUR COUNTRY. MAKE OUR GRAND PREMIER PROUD. IT IS AN HONOR TO WORK FOR THE GOOD OF THE DOMAIN."
The enforcer led Elian and Rick off the trolley and into the train station. A silver train was already waiting on the tracks, smoke hovering over the top of it like a raincloud. Other workers and Launching Day candidates were already boarding the train. Elian knew that they were Launching Day applicants because they had the same shaking shoulders and wide, scared eyes as Rick Kim. Elian still wondered why the Launching Day would scare them. She heard from her brothers that it was nothing to be scared about and that it was over so quickly that you wondered what you were even scared about in the first place. I guess I'll just have to find out on my own, Elian thought.
They board the train. The seats were stiff and dotted with mysterious stains. Elian tried to sit in one of the cleaner seats next to the enforcer, who sat stiffly and stared straight ahead. The other enforcers on the train were just as rigid, while the kids they were escorting stayed quiet.
Elian couldn't take the silence. It reminded her of days and nights alone in the apartment while the rest of her family worked. When the train started, Elian's stomach started to hurt again. She doubled over and rested her head on her knees as the train rattled forward on the tracks. She wanted to look out the window and see the Rush City that she never got to see, but she was afraid that she would throw up.
The train finally came to a stop. Elian groaned with relief and sat up to look out the window. They had stopped at another train station, this one bigger and more grand. Banners bearing The Domain's colors and sigil-a black bird with its wings spread against a background of navy blue and white—hung from the ceiling. White smoke from several trains billowed up like columns. Kids from the other valleys were being herded onto the main platform. Elian guessed that this was where the Launching Day would take place.
The enforcers led their kids off the train and onto the main platform. Elian felt a little nauseous, but she willed herself to walk like she was fine. The last thing she wanted to do was faint in front of thousands of people, even if they were all nervous and scared. She looked to her left to Rick. He had started shaking again, and she just wanted him to calm down. Elian had a habit of feeling responsible for other people, even if she didn't really know them. She just wanted Rick to relax.
"It's gonna be okay, Rick," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "It's gonna go by so fast. They're gonna give you a job and that's it. You'll be a worker for The Domain."
Rick shook his head. "No. No, that's not what happens. That's not what I heard."
"What have you heard?"
Before Elian could answer, a man's voice boomed, "LINE UP!"
The Launching Day applicants were shuffled and herded like cattle into several straight lines on the platform according to their numbers. Elian was 24-605, and Rick was 24-606. The enforcers, their jobs done, stood to the side.
A woman in a navy blue and white uniform walked in front of the applicants. Several guards armed with guns accompanied her. Although she was no taller than Elian, she walked tall and straight, with her shoulders back and her chin high. Her dark hair was pulled back from her forehead in a ponytail, making her face look even more pointed and defined. Around her neck hung a silver necklace with a blood-red charm dangling from it.
"I am Colonel Tyri Keenan," she said in a sharp, defined voice. "I will be overlooking your Launching Day. If you behave and are cooperative, this will go by quickly, smoothly, and painlessly."
Elian wondered who on earth would think about not cooperating when they were surrounded by 20 men with guns.
"Your number will called randomly, and you will be assigned to an occupation," continued the Colonel. "You do not have the option of changing your occupation once it is chosen for you. Your personal preferences do not matter. Your duty is to The Domain and to your Grand Premier. It is an honor to work for the betterment of The Domain. However, before your occupation is chosen, we must perform a simple procedure."
She turned to the men behind her. "Scan them."
The men flanked out, pulling from their pockets small, rectangular devices.
Rick started hyperventilating and shaking. Elian grabbed his wrist and whispered to him that it was going to be fine. She felt like she was lying; she didn't even know what they were scanning for.
The men went down each line, holding the device in front of each applicant's face. It would beep once, and the guard would go to the next applicant.
Beep, beep, beep…whatever they were scanning for, they didn't find it for the first five lines of applicants. Then they got to the sixth line, the line right ahead of Elian and Rick's.
The guard scanned the face of a small girl with short red hair, and the device began to flash and beep violently. The guard grabbed the girl by the shoulder and pulled her out of line. He shoved her into the arms of another guard, who put handcuffs on her wrists and led her off the platform while she screamed and cried.
Now Elian knew why Rick was nervous. What if they found whatever they were looking for in either one of them? Where did they take them? What did they do to them?
The guards reached Elian and Rick's line. Rick's face was shining with sweat, and Elian understood his fear. She felt like someone had poured a bag of ice into her stomach. What if they picked her? She would never see her brothers and parents again. They would come home and see the apartment empty of her.
Beep, beep, beep…the guard was three people away from Elian and Rick. Elian turned to Rick and said, "It's okay, Rick. Alright, it's gonna be alright."
"No," he whispered. "N-no it's not."
The guard stopped in front of Elian and held the device to her face.
It beeped once.
Elian didn't have time to breathe a sigh of relief. The guard held the device up to Rick's face, and it started to flash and beep like it did for the red-headed girl. Rick started crying, but the guard was merciless as he grabbed him by the back of his neck and led him out of line. When Elian stepped forward and reached for Rick, another guard pulled her back and held a gun to her back.
Rick, like the small red-headed girl, was shoved into the arms of another guard and handcuffed. Rick stole one last look back at Elian before he was led off the platform.