p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="fe5e5599b1baa4b2afc373c6fd64b43f"span style="box-sizing: border-box; font-weight: bold;"u style="box-sizing: border-box;"Jaxon/u/span/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="b465ee1ced7113a8ef7e4a95850094d8"A boy sits hunched over in the dark of a corner./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="8b7c46ac263b249d4623d21403d1829e""As you can see we may be the first people to find a non-hostile strain, a Claw at that too. This discovery could change the very nature of the cure we are searching for; some remnant of humanity may still cling to the host." A voice speaks loudly and passionately, though I can't see the man who says it./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="7831e0713f9eca198ef80839918c1287""I'm glad you're excited Doc, but we shouldn't be talking, it might not be aggressive but that doesn't mean others in the building won't be too," someone out of frame, with a deep and coarse voice whispers./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="4fc01d13097320590f73cf02a3c8fbef""I suppose you're right," the original man replies, readjusting the camera./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="549f69bda61c454defc306101c5b02b1"They're in what I would assume to be a classroom were it not rendered almost unrecognizable by the rotting walls and collapsed ceiling. The boy uncomfortably shifts the weight in his misshapen feet, the old dark wood floorboards creak and shudder in response. He risks a peek outside of his shadowy corner, quickly moving behind a nearby flipped over desk. He places his deformed hand atop and slowly pulls his head up. There's a quick flash of anger when he sees the same man with the camera, still watching him intently, getting ever closer as the boy runs out of places to hide./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="e7bdb86328d65f932b41e295de1cf194""He is no more than a monster, I'm sure you've even heard the term, Demon," The Informant tells us, though it's barely audible over the sound of my own heart urging me to flee./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="5303632106ae705ab2746a55f278fbc1"The boy looks young, possibly in his early teens, and his skin, or at least the parts that are visible, look far too pale to be human. Crawling more and more into the light, I'm forced to look at his arms that the cameraman zooms in on. They're unnaturally long and thin. If that wasn't terrifying enough the camera pans down to where his hands should be, but instead of a hand, there's a gross mass of flesh. An inch thick, multi-layered cocoon of keratin, bone, and hardened flesh. At first, the cocoon is more like tendrils that resemble a parasite weaving in and out of the skin, branching from the lower arm into the palms and wrist. But as you near the fingers the tendrils begin to come together and creates the aforementioned cocoon. Seven-inch, sharp, serrated claws encase and wrap around where his fingers used to be./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="93f2bf720f3cc2eaf9d83c75d866639b""Those claws can rend a half-inch of pure steel; it goes without saying what that would do to human flesh. Not that it matters, even the smallest cut will mean death."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="756b15172d3847d263e92e9f91d8f310"As the fear finally settles in, the cameraman gets a little too close for the Monster's comfort. In response, he begins to hiss and scream hysterically, sporadically clambering and clawing his way out the cameraman's path. The thing tries to hide behind some of the collapsed ceilings in the center-right of the room but he's still clearly visible, only his head is hidden. The Informant says something but all I caught was 'egocentrism.' He digs his claws into the dry concrete, that like the table before, crumbles and cracks under his inhuman strength. Bathed now more fully in the light, I can see the entirety of what remains of his warped arms. A nausea-inducing sight of a black decaying mass of dead flesh that consumes from the upper arm down through his claws. Vines of dying skin and black veins paint his pale, bloodless skin. Again the voice speaks, She tells me that it is the most severe necrosis ever recorded. She compares it to a constant and painful taste of death that his still-living body fights against. She emphasized that, still-living. Though if it really is as painful as she describes it to be, he doesn't seem to notice./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="9391d094e1859575789af602dba7fdf7"The boy looks up once again at the camera unable to straighten his back. His spine tormented into a permanent downward curve, just another symptom to remind us he's no longer human. Another horrifying piece of the puzzle./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="34db60a6f256737750bcefee022c544e"The demon finally looks directly into the camera with an empty and mindless glare. What portion of its eyes I could see were tainted yellowed by the Infection. The iris only a slim ring around the dilated pupil that has encroached outside its natural limits. It consumes and morphs the eye into a black swamp, void of anything but the feral instincts that now fill the darkest corners of its slowly degrading mind./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="810ed01d6f698820cef688eff4ffae1a"It begins to nervously pace behind its poor cover. The sound of talons clicking against the wooden floor rings out in a melody with his footsteps; woven in with it is the screeching of claws being dragged against the concrete as if to warn the Cameraman to keep his distance, or else. I'm pretty sure it isn't smart enough to do that, but that doesn't make it any less terrifying./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="3a47829f11d42b5c75da30dc036797f8"Behind the cameraman, there's a small amount of unintelligible chatter, as the demon pauses and leaps atop the rubble, screaming out with a dead voice in desperate need of water. For the first time, I see its legs. They're way too muscular, made now for hunting rather than walking. Almost like the muscle from his arms was relocated to make him faster, inescapable. It curls its feet in preparation to jump, digging his sharpened toes further into the already torn apart rubble. It begins to rear its legs up into a position to pounce, swaying its claws, back and forth, like a pendulum./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="f38ef9cf5303b37bf2a8a3f5977fbcfc""Doesn't It looks starved? It's cheeks hollow and body thin, wouldn't you think it would do anything to eat?" The Informant points out./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="5e3844878b816f83fa6027c34ebee828"So it's no surprise when it jumps at the cameraman. For just a horrifying instant the camera is filled with only the black layer of flesh on its right cheek, its blackened teeth, then nothing, as the camera is dropped instinctively. I'm told the camera's lens broke in the fall but lucky for us there's still audio. I count two screams and five gunshots before the video finally ends./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="30ee523a78a8009ac0a6653b8160ad4e"August 13th marks the start of the fall school year, and schooling is mandatory from the age of six to twelve. On the first day of first grade, the Informant gathers every six-year-old in the Sprawl and puts them all into a large barren room with nothing more than a large screen and projector. She forces everyone that has ever lived in the Sprawl to watch that video at the age of six. It's a blatant scare-tactic, and it works. The Informant gave some sort of speech afterward but it's drowned out by the cries of the children, who've been traumatized; looking for the comfort of their guardians to no avail. I remember distinctly I didn't cry. Not that I wasn't scared of them, in fact, I couldn't move. Even now it remains as such a vivid memory of being paralyzed by fear. I'm sure I wanted to cry, I probably wanted to run and scream among other things but I remained silent. Some strange part of me was drawn to it, I had to know what it was, why it looked almost human./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="03d0f261a83f8e080782f5a827b732bb"The image of its feral stare and grotesque body haunts the populace's nightmares for the rest of our lives, a constant reminder of why we choose to stay underground, why even the awful conditions of the Mundanes are preferable./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="8cbaebd61ec8b86b432096704ccfd800"Six years later the memory stays strong as you finally graduate mandatory schooling, but instead of graduation, I'd read about in books we have the Selection Ceremony. The Informant herself hosts the Selection Ceremony as well, where the now 'adult' child must choose their zone. At this ceremony, the Informant gives another speech about the creatures, reminding us of the horrors of the surface, but here she promises that one day the surface will be ours once more. After her declaration of war, she continues and paints all three of the zones as noble choices. That each zone furthers the goal of reconquering our lost home. But by then most are old enough to see the poor and miserable conditions the Mundane live in, compared to the lush life of the other zones and so most opt for the RD and AG zones. Though most of them will return to the Mundanes within the next few years./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="e857eda8ae62fb106f9e35280962f342"I answered RD before the official assigned to me even finished his pre-written spiel about the significance of my choice and its lasting impact on my life. It didn't matter to me. All that mattered was the boy who became a demon. How a human could become that? What happens up there?/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="a16ebf1db7d7152bd743f40efc92a3a4"At fifteen I had to choose a specialty, Research, or Defense. Combat training was mandatory for the first three years in the RD, and it made me sick. I'm by no means a pacifist. I believe that there are situations where a violent action may not only be necessary but the best option. That being said, I'm a coward, I hate to be the one to inflict pain onto others myself, even onto the "monsters" everyone hates. That I too should hate. So, I chose Research, not only to satisfy my own curiosities that brought me here in the first place but now to also run from the ever-growing pit in my stomach./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="5c7b6f955ade15b4ebac852f7c47ac8a"Another four years have passed since then and now here I sit, nineteen, in the home of a Mundane, on the precipice of my dreams, wondering if my whole life has been a series of constant mistakes. I can't help but wonder if Dad felt this way. I never did ask him why he dropped out of the RD, afraid that if he told me, I'd agree, and that if I agreed, I'd never know what happened to the surface./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="7472d4b6417044b99131c74b1d4cc89b"Mehaw shifts to her feet and reaches out for her walking stick./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="06c5a993c62a35d02b7855870dd5ea8d""Jaxon, please help me up. I'm quite old as you know," she laughs./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="200f953b107c378b5368c60588acc38c""Oh, uh sure," I say getting up from the couch shaking away the lingering thoughts in my head./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="9adffd7493ea15e03c5cd21ca0d6f4c7"I help her up, and she thanks me as she hobbles towards the door. Leaving me standing there awkwardly, not wanting to sit down immediately after but not really wanting to stand there either. She pauses in front of the door and checks to make sure the makeshift chain locks are in place before creaking open the door as she did for me./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="e80d1acfbac45d79fadf9e59816a93e0"The door stays cracked open for a while, Mehaw whispers something through the opening, quickly glancing at me, before she returns to whispering. I try my best to hear what she's saying, but I'm a few feet away, the door blocks her mouth, and I can't hear much through the sound of my eardrums pounding. I shouldn't be nervous if it's my parents then what's to worry about? Other than them hating me for who I've become. Hell, I don't even know if it is my parents, but I can't calm down, and my heart only beats faster. Finally, she shuts the door and undoes the locks./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="2bc2aee27cccba1c734cf8203dcb72b2"Before I have time to even notice the door has been opened my mother quickly embraces me into a gentle but meaningful hug. "I've been so worried about you," she weeps faintly, and once again I'm at a loss for words./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="de7d661e0174364cb33fdd89c3c25642"I'm not the greatest in awkward situations, but I was so convinced that like most families they'd pretend I didn't exist. Maybe that they'd hate me for leaving them to take part in the RD, for siding with the Informant. I was so wrapped up in my anxious fear that I never considered that I'd hurt them with worry. So, swept up in the whirlwind of emotion, I did the only thing that felt right and returned her embrace./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="13b39d4ee17c7a33862fea03a520d03b"After what feels like forever and yet still not long enough, I let go. Mom looks me in the eyes and it's like staring into a mirror. We have the same vivid brown eyes bursting with life, but there's something different about her eyes that I don't see in myself. Under that layer of life is a powerful toughness, and even further beneath that is the weariness and fear that I can see plain as day consumes her. She looks hurt and tired. By now Mom's in her late forties, her once vibrant auburn hair is beginning to gray as stress piles up, but other than that she looks exactly as I remembered. Except I guess I'm much taller than her now. That's new./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="82f4d346b0423e37eaeca85a625f7e48""I'm ok Mom, I'll tell you all about it," I say. She looks at me as a mother does when she suspects her child of lying, but eventually nods and hesitantly lets me go, tears still rolling down her red cheeks./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="a6ba7fb352fb79f79de47062ef7fbbb2"I look across the room at my Dad who's been standing in the door frame, he somehow looks even more tired than Mom does. Like the whole world weighs down atop his shoulders and he's just about ready to let it fall. Tired of whatever struggle plagues him. Nonetheless, he slowly walks over and stops just in front of me, looking me up and down, examining me. He too looks as I remember, the same dark brown hair, the same pale complexion, his eyes a mixture of many different shades of blue. I hold my breath awaiting the remark about how I abandoned them, how I've stripped years from their lives through stress and worry, or maybe even how I shouldn't have come back. Yet before I know it, he's pulled me into a tight and strong hug, like he's afraid that if he doesn't hold on as tight as he can I will slip away again./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="31ea89c7b93aa47242442984acd9d904""I'm so proud of you."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="b7283baafd769214a0b54dff50cf9763"There's a heaviness to his voice like there have been a million things he's wanted to tell me over the years, a million stories he wanted to share. So he's held onto every one of them, waiting for his chance to see me again, waiting to express everything he's felt, everything he's seen, but now that he's finally been given that chance. It's all that he can say./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="7e72c0e2268be423f01a7d0b1318cb33""Welcome home Jax."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="9f983c9f0db77109354bfdb8c034e400"I didn't realize it till now but I feel my eyes burn as the first tears stream down my face. I've missed them so much. Maybe it wasn't all a mistake./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="c0428b8276c88af84b333275f449ddd9"After a while of standing around, awkwardly strung up in the web of delicate emotions we've willingly trapped ourselves in, Dad tells me that my Mother and he still have another errand to run and would appreciate my company./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="38f9549f97248f9a9f115e2a4c6cc3b9""So what do you say Jaxon, a journey down to the tenth floor?" My dad inquires, putting on only one strap of a dirty neon yellow backpack./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="40812a11d9752f44fd1aeeb960908aaf""Sure thing, but what exactly are we going to do?"/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="572d4703be1408f5bfa70130ac02ea19""Oh, uh well, your mother got sick of me stealing metal to patch up our home because it's stealing. I think?" He glances at her unsure. "So, I gathered some iron ore from the mines and sent it off to be refined but we need to pick it up from the drop-off station." "Because for some reason they won't just deliver it here," he says frustratedly. Dad walks over to the door but pauses before opening it. "Oh and Jax." He gestures a hand toward me. "Leave the RD coat here, we're going to cross through some unsavory territory. The jacket will only complicate things, and the Informant won't know you took it off here."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="f798bd98c17f97cd52bb3896c5ac805e""Sure thing I guess," I take off the jacket and I have to admit it feels weird to not have it on outside of the confines of my room. Mom beams at me as I put the jacket down on the couch and walks past me back out to the Mundanes./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="ba46fb8827b9028fb8455d53d1ace28c"The walk to the tenth floor is overwhelmingly boring, plain steel walls surrounding dozens of rickety spiral staircases./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="8ca60467fdd40f3a1e85e3ba666bd6b8""So, what brought you home Jax?" Dad asks, shooting a glance back at me as we round the third staircase./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="205893cb3b880240349fabff8b31d359""Well the surface final exam is tomorrow, and if I pass..." I trail off./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="3c81bc3f529c9e7360326fb456362fc9"I haven't put too much thought into what I'd be doing beyond the exam. My end goal was always to pass the exam, get outside, and reclaim the surface, but now that I actually have to do it, is it even possible? Is that even still what I want? My parents wait patiently for me to continue, aware that I'm bombarding myself with unanswerable questions. Some things never change./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="6663e1e25e3f8d8274242a12cc00010d""...I'm not sure if I'd ever get to see you again."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="95d3e3d22f76ea8cfadd9cf1505f731c""But you'd be happy, wouldn't you?" Mom asks from behind me, the concern evident in her voice./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="c055ae1eddb7cb885af6435d66218a01""Yeah... I think so, I just need to see what's out there I think."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="d842f9c16b7b25bcd0716ba135ea931d"Dad pauses to look at me and I nearly walk into him./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="cb668d642a52fd31d2232a3c24638a80""The surface is dangerous Jax," his eyes dance with worry but understanding, "But I suppose that need to explore is my fault." He nervously chuckles running his hand through his hair, "You think too much like me when I was in the RD zone, and to make it even more my fault, I told you all those stories. I should've known better."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="5cf1e72ae047c7bec8d2ada42433cc1e"At first, I didn't know how to process that. Dad never talked about his reasons for joining the RD, I always assumed it was to avoid a life in the Mundanes as most do./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="d5846a08f9177d7c182a7aa17254cb3d""I do?" I speedily ask stumbling over the two words, hungry for any information on my dad as an RD./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="7d5de5959a5c1636fb83fec0fe84dc6c"He looks back at me again, a grim smile forces its way across his face. "More than I hoped." There's a sharp pain that flickers in his eyes, similar to the pain I saw in Mom easier. Though again he seems almost worse, something that I know he won't talk about because he can't. Something that has barred him for years, that talking about it now would hurt him so much. I couldn't do that to him, so I drop it./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="8fe9873748b1493c653854124b9b19b8"The rest of the walk down is filled with polite conversation about how life has been for the last seven years. After the fifth staircase though, conversation becomes more scarce as we begin to concentrate on not falling because, after the five flights, there's nothing, not even guard rails. The other Mundane platforms are on the opposite side of the chasm and getting curious I look down staring into what's got to be at least a one-hundred-foot drop down to the tenth floor. If the Focus was reminiscent of a small village the tenth Floor is closer to a town. I think, anyway. I guess I don't really know what a town looks like outside of pictures. The tenth floor is bigger than the Focus and with it comes the most confusing looking roads I've ever seen. I thought the RD's maze of similar-looking hallways was bad enough, but this looks like someone saw a drawing a four-year-old made with crayons and said "Yeah, that'll work." To make that even worse, the ceiling lights that light the rest of the Sprawl don't reach this far down, and so lanterns hung on wires have to spread light throughout the streets below. Some lights are a different color marking the territory of the seven different gangs that collectively own the Mundanes. Only adding further to the confusion./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="6438a3a84a190bb77acddd798c0b422f"When we reach the bottom floor it dawns on me I've never been down here before. The first thing I notice is that all the buildings down here have concrete bases. I suppose that makes sense considering how close they are to the limestone deposit, but it still takes me by surprise. Although the buildings themselves are still made of wood, turns out concrete is heavy and the Mundane can't afford to make houses of brick and mortar. The second thing that surprises me is how bright it is. I thought it would be dark but it's almost as bright as anywhere else, minus a few pockets of darkness here and there. It's almost beautiful, and since white light means neutral territory I feel safe taking it all in. Other than the lights the place is barren, not even the shrubs and dirt roads that give the focus its charm. Down here is only metal, wood, and concrete./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="91bcc12a228785d940447e809158e728""Keep close Jax, and try not to talk," Dad whispers to me, handing me a mask. The two of them put on a black plastic mask with red roses that mark it from cheek to cheek. "The last thing you want is enemies if you aren't part of a gang," Mom tells me as I tie the black ribbon behind my head, fixing the mask to my face./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="804875b94975ceeaa6c0a1a8441bcf4e"The further we walk from the staircase the more I realize how detached from reality I am; for one it's cold, and with it, I realize I've never really been cold in my life before. The only time the Sprawls internal heaters aren't on is at night when the RD zone needs extra power for an experiment. Even then the RD zone heaters stay on, and as a kid, I would be asleep under blankets by then. But the heaters don't reach this far down so the warm glow of fire begins to light many of the street paths the deeper we go. I take note when the lights change to a red color. I know different gangs have different laws in their territories; I'd assume my parents wouldn't walk down a road where murder isn't a crime, and especially not territories where it's encouraged; regardless I find myself dangerously close to switching my gloves on again, like a coward. The only thing keeping me from doing so is what my parents would think of me if I did./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="3b19614ad8403c5be848131fb68e2110"In the center of the final platform is a Statue of Charles Wason, the very first Informant. That's all we know about him, other than that he was the only loved Informant other than arguably the second. The only evidence I need to back that up is that even now when people hate the Informant his statue is untouched. Even the criminals here seem to acknowledge his work. I did always find it odd that the Spire has no records on the previous Informants. Not even on the Informant's role or origin. We finish our walk to the well-maintained RD foundry drop-off behind good-old Charles Wason, silent as my Dad said. The lights here are unsurprisingly white, though I do wonder if that changes from time to time. The building we stop at is a perfect rectangle, and it looks so gross and unnatural compared to the, while poorly built, more organic homes and shops around it./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="8b18d102da53e0fef773f69a3ef5a055""Picking up thirteen pounds of metal plating for the Herrera family." My dad speaks into the square speaker In front of the building. There's a lot of rustling from behind the wall and then a clunk as a drawer pops out./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="c69de9707bb0390f94a732040ecea59f""Two pounds now, the other eleven will be in next week." A man with a heavy Chinese accent speaks through the same speaker Dad spoke into./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="bb9a577240c74fd897cc95131d1ca57d""But-, ugh, fine, thank you."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="d4ca87be1b173068b01cc6f69c991c02""Get lost Mundane."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="700db1d5d19eca4cb1c886e6166cc710"Dad lets out an exhausted sigh and shoulders off his backpack to the ground pulling the iron plates out of the drawer. He turns around starting to crouch to put the plates in the backpack but suddenly drops the plates./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="05139fdfc06fc8fc9d16ca4027102d22""Carmen MOVE!" Dad yells at my mother./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="5864b3ba3bb3fbe6f6e4fee1ee8b6976"Time seems to slow down as both Mom and I turn around to see what's happening. Mom, being the one presumably in danger, throws up her arms and tries unsuccessfully to duck. The sound of flesh being torn rings in my ears as a woman stabs a shiv and twists it deep into my mother's arm./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="b6108ce147555b43208f0014f8f3a73a"The woman leaves the shiv in Mom's arm and pulls out an ornate white-handled knife. "Give me the metal and no one gets hurt further," the woman demands. She looks to be barely older than me and is dressed in all black leather. She has long fading purple hair, that lies in contrast to her pale skin. Around her are eight more men armed with knives, blunt weapons, hair all dyed purple as well. "In fact, because I'm a generous co-owner you can keep it in exchange for three favor."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="f525d6acab3234cb63be72feded598a4"One of her cohorts snickers at that for some reason and she growls at him. He shuts up immediately./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="057470934401fccd177f2267c270c228"I feel my gloves begin to vibrate to life as I hesitantly decide if I can really do what I'm about to do./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="4fe6d7e86d8a4f09e04fe796b8542605""Please, we need this metal," Dad slowly walks up to her, making sure he's in a place where it would be harder for her men to get to Mom./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="2a262693c1366e25ac977e85b9d9be2d""Did I ask if you wanted it, now tell me am I getting the metal or your favor!?" She yells at him slamming the backside of her off-hand across his face before kneeing him in the stomach. Dad back peddles a little before collapsing to a knee, gesturing his hand to the backpack for her to take. She coldly smiles at him, "Thank you."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="93b9d499b26b7c09562b17b011e166c3"And finally, I reach my breaking point and take a step forward, stomping down my right foot, putting myself between her and the bag./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="7a9c9f977d92368b204f5e45865853b8""And what are you gonna do child," she mocks me./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="8158ed0b213b5b9c5e6415958055bc98""Turn around and leave us alone or I detonate it," I tell her, holding my Old-world tech up in front of me, palm facing her. My sense of hearing dissipates as the passive whorling of my gloves burns into an ear-piercing screech; the low blue glow that the etching in the metal bands gives when the gloves are on now glows bright red. In theory, that's to warn me I'm overloading the thread bearers, but in this situation, that's exactly what I want. "Trust me, you don't want that, it'll tear you asunder." Of course, I have no intention of actually detonating the weapon. First off, I'm in the blast radius, and so are my parents, so it would be stupid to do so, and secondly, I don't want to hurt them, I just want them to leave my family alone. I'm worried if she calls my bluff if I'd actually do anything. Would I really be able to fight?/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="bb73bd35f4186b49dd5b3dff221341eb"She glares at me but realizing I have Old-World tech does the smart thing and signals her men to stand down./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="e5b455674dd6d8a29bdf2b3b5e0cb848""You better hope I never see you again without your crutch." She spits venomously at me, before turning tail and walking away, her gang members following suit./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="0e97dd1cd25a827aa3f04bb86aa5c6d8""You have Old-World tech?" Dad looks at me with a face so mixed with emotion that I can't pick any one of them out./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="eef0e9fd4c63c9c3db6e0a306e898b1f""Dad I-."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="d7b6e261326d65eee68a8bfb1f0472e4""You're just lucky it wasn't their leader, we would've had a full-on Old-World tech fight! Can you even begin to imagine the number of people that could be hurt?"/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="84702a73f217501b81052450968154df""Dad, really I'm sorry I didn't have a choice the informant gave it to me! What was I supposed to do tell Her no?."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="2e9b57543e68c2c6a0530bd7836528e4"He doesn't respond, picking up his backpack and walking over to tend to Mom's injury. Even from where I stand I cant tell it's deep from the dark red that flows steadily from her arm when Dad removes the shiv. Mom winces a little as he applies bandages he kept readily in his backpack. Once Mom assures him for the third time she's fine, Dad finally stands up and looks back at me./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="8ceb26fc0130e77d8a0a51f82a3bebfb"span style="box-sizing: border-box; font-weight: bold;"em style="box-sizing: border-box;"They're going to hate me./em/span/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="cd89e52034c2b92fbe48d2f456ef3877""Let's head home, we can talk about it later Jaxon," he says as I turn them off./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="7a5343e45399a73fd6d657514bebf4fc"No one talks on the way home. My parents hate Old-world tech, because, besides them being generally destructive, it is also one of the main factors in the class division between the RD and the Mundane. Technically anyone can win the Tech but RD members tend to get it far more often, and the power they offer is ridiculous. After all, I just used it to get my way with the Mundane did I not? She had no choice but to listen./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="df1743119e2d9cf96e99512fa47bb341"Right before we get home and Dad begins to question me about what I'm doing with Old-World tech; a loud electric squeal fills the hallways outside the small hovel./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="d7dafa93671abc35e7e0c531289a664b""Attention all RD zoned, the Grand Feast will begin in about two hours, this is mandatory, and failure to attend will lead to immediate removal from the RD," Her voice screeches through the Sprawl's PA system. Everyone knows Her voice. The Informant's voice has been drilled into your head since you were little, less you upset Her by mistake. Her voice is soft, seemingly kind and gentle, underlined by unwavering confidence. It would be soothing if She was not the most powerful person left alive. "Once again this event is for RD zoned only, 0814295. Again 0814295. Trespassing will lead to punishment, thank you for your time."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="117c84b7dec4fedac3a33a584cab6c48"There was the familiar click of the PA system turning off and then silence. No one dared move, the Informant had that effect on almost everyone. I was stunned too, but not out of fear of the Informant, I was more concerned as to why She chose to broadcast the feast this year. The Grand Feast was an annual event, a celebration for the RD zoned who were to either graduate or take their surface exam. It was harmless other than the amount of food it costs, but it was kept secret. It was always kept a secret. Not even RD zoned knew about it until their third or fourth year depending on their grades. I mean even the invitations were hand-delivered by the Informant Herself. Dad fidgets uncomfortably, that same grim smile once again stretched across his face./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="9c31ff9295c6f10b57a9013bc5dc621c""Jax" his voice cracks, "You should probably get going to that..." Mom looks down at her feet, she too now seems more uncomfortable, "But before that, I need to talk to you. Alone."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="18409b740f7efe24d5b925fa3e0d2603"Mom walks up shakily and pulls me into another tight hug, but this one is not full of the warmth of the first, this one feels almost too final, and hurts a little too much./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="6431812e0e5826937f8ce5321e6ebbf6""I'm glad you have that tech, I hope it's as powerful as you made it seem. Promise me, you'll be safe in your exam." Mom cries into my shoulder, "that no matter what happens, you'll do what'll make you happy, even without us."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="da49e93fe58c8f0d6c33fb9e44d1b21d"em style="box-sizing: border-box;"What?/em/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="bb3bc602cc5e0e3865a4f65a80c3d67b"I stare at her, "What do you mean, it's just a simple simulation, a test of my knowledge and skills, isn't it?" I laugh nervously shooting glances at their solemn faces. She says nothing, while her eyes bore into me, waiting. "Mom...I-" she holds that same brave face she always has, but under that, I can tell, she's terrified. "I- I promise."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="8e1f743003a0e149d794f6583882a8e1"She smiles at that, the sorrow not yet lost from her eyes. "Jaxon, I love you so much, you were worth it all."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="efbb356ba239934d39d7f814c58ae158""I love you too," I say confused, terribly lost, obviously missing some context. I look over to Dad, and again he looks so tired, that weight on his shoulders has seemingly doubled in the time I've been here. Mom holds onto me for a long time, not wanting to let go, not wanting to say goodbye to her only son, but finally, she nods towards my Dad and heads towards the door. Her bandages now stained red again. I ask her to give Mehaw my farewell for me, assuming I won't get to do so myself; as dad rests his hand on my shoulder and ushers me up the stairs and to the Mundane bridge./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="64bc4e9073989bfd8ffa15cd8ea6904f"The entrance bridge is flood full of people heading home for the night but lucky for us the exit bridge is empty. The overhead lights continue to dim as the Sprawl prepares for the night cycle. I wasted too much time, I didn't get to spend enough time with them, I'm an idiot, what is wrong with me? My mind continues to belittle me until Dad speaks./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="f6c6b84feb616b31caa87b6bc69f8526""Jax, you've always been so good at reading how people feel." He looks at me, the fear in his eyes screaming so loud it's deafening. "So I'm sure you can tell how scared I really am."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="b92c85574a014095c58c276c724b5784""Is- is everything ok Dad?" I ask. We both know the answer to that./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="3babc5e961a3fd7dc5963f9889c65583"Dad looks around, making sure no one is near and drops the black mask he was wearing off the edge of the bridge. I feel a wave of guilt wash over me realizing they'd have to buy new masks because of me./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="c85ad1ef31cca8e38617a0320bf5d354""I wish I could tell you everything will be alright Jax. I want to tell you everything that you're about to go through, that the exam will be simple, that you'll be safe." He lets out a sigh, his voice starts to break. "But I can't, the Informant might kill you if you knew what I know, I wait every day for Her to have me killed, I'm surprised She hasn't yet."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="de598bfe7ad63f6b5d0bd159acf7170e""Dad?" I croak out./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="a53778a5fbd14cd3bac85e0ea512da52"Once again he looks me up and down, then pulls me into his arms. "Look, Jaxon, you'll be given a gun at the start of your exam, never go anywhere without it, always keep it loaded, and keep the safety off, always ready to fire in an instant. I know in the past I've ridiculed the use of Old-World tech but Jaxon, for the love of God, use it," he whispers into my ear, so quiet I almost miss it. "Jax, this next month is going to be awful and brutal for you, you're going to be pushed to your edge," he pauses to breathe, and somehow, he pulls me in even closer. "Know that I'm so proud of who you've become, I never said that enough, I know, but I need you to know that there's nothing you can ever do to change that." He begins to breathe even heavier, his voice now heaving. "You'll be forced to do things that you'd never do, but I'll never forget the day you stared at the most hideous thing this world has to show and asked me about the human beneath it; the boy who has always felt the call to see the surface as I once did, to see the sky, to feel the sun's warmth on your own skin." His voice gets caught in his throat, and I feel his body shake against mine, "The boy who made my life worth it all."/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="7ca14d10f638543af39eb3e8796ddf52"He's crying by now, and with it, the gravity of his fear finally settles in. "I-" His words get caught in his throat, "I love you so so much Jaxon, I ran like a coward... please do better than me." He pulls away from me, wiping the tears away from his eyes with the back of his hand, and smiles. His eyes swirl with fear and sorrow and pride. Lips quivering so much to say, so little time. "I suppose you already have." He looks up at the lights, as they dim once again. How do I respond to that?/p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="2a4667a6f26e069f734e4e19bb7f8cd4""Goodbye Jaxon," he says and once again it feels too final./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="60b61df0d90e36a35b0c8992aa599631""Goodbye... I promise I'll come back, I love you," I say once I find my voice. His smile falters at that, and as I walk away, I have a feeling that really will be the last time I see them./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="94fb31f981daf59d7dd857ba625df7da"I hardly remember the half-hour walk back up to the Mundane gate, my mind still running with thought. What do the numbers mean? How do they relate to my parents? How does my Dad know anything about the Exam? Does my Mom know too? No one knows, the Informant made sure of it. Yet my parents know, does the Informant know they know? My mind runs with questions, tearing at me, asking for answers I can't give. Nothing will satiate it./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="d45880e9af3ff6a7281c32715e27e83b"The golden rail tram station from the Mundanes to the RD zone is unsurprisingly empty except for the few RD zoned heading back for the feast. The inside of the tram is rows of red-purple velvet seats facing a table in between each pair of seats. A long neon overhead light stretching the entire length of the tram shedding, in my opinion, way too much light into the cramped tram. The trams are machine operated with no options for a manual override, so I take a seat by the window and wait for the machine to decide it's time for departure. As I ride the rail tram back, I focus on the light shining out from the Spire to distract my self-destructive mind./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" data-p-id="95736b7d1a492561b902829daf12829e"At night cycle the Focus lights up, every building pours out as much light as possible. In the center of it all lays the Spire which now shines as bright as how I imagine the moon would be. Small circular lights spiral up its sides casting light into every nook and cranny the shadows hide themselves in, guiding the people still wandering the winding roads home. Dad would take me to see the lights once a month each time with a new story. I never knew where he got all his stories from, I wish I asked. One of my favorite stories he ever told me was that long ago, cities had hundreds of buildings just as tall as the Spire and they glowed just as bright. That the nights were never dark anymore. That humanity cast out the dark and alongside it their fears that lurked in it. I'm not sure how believable that is, but it's a comforting idea when the nights are a little too dark. Though thinking of my Dad, now only makes me nauseous./p
p style="box-sizing: border-box; margin: 0px 0px 24px; font-size: 18px; font-family: 'Source Sans Pro', 'Helvetica Neue', Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif; line-height: 24px; padding: 0px;" /p