Elites of Eden
WE MOVE THROUGH the world like a pack of wolves, striding on long legs, bright-eyed, ravenous. We are beautiful, and a casual observer might think us soft because of that beauty. But we have teeth no one can imagine.
We move like soldiers, from the pre-fail days when humans fought wars. The lesser creatures step aside. Most openly stare. Only the boldest look away from us. To not admire us is a grave insult. They will be remembered. Punished.
Our uniform skirts swish around our legs. The daughters of lawyers and politicians, we know how to bend the rules to our own whims. The Oaks Code states only that all students wear the green leaf-and-tendril motif of our school. The oak stands strong, supporting the tender vine. Most of the students conform exactly, looking like the identical, mindless clones they are, fitting in seamlessly with everyone around them. Not us.
My skirt is long, made not of printed fabric but individual cutouts in the shape of oak leaves in all the red, gold, and orange colors of fall. The leaves overlap and flow in a cascade to my mid-calf, though there are several strategic slits that reveal my leg to the thigh with the slightest twitch. I’ve seen vids of an oak forest in autumn, the trees looking almost like
a wildfire as those dying flame colors toss in the late-season wind. When I move, my skirt rustles like the forests none of us have seen, or will ever see. My top is the pale yellow-green of a new-sprouted spring leaf, skintight, with embroidered tendrils snaking up my ribs.
PEARL LOOKS LIKE a butterfly flitting through a forest. There’s a suggestion of the traditional leaf-and-tendril pattern, but most of her dress is made of iridescent nanoparticles that change from green to blue to silver whenever the light hits them. Her tights are shimmering silver. She’d be a hit at light-night at the Rain Forest Club.
(I bite my tongue, glad I’ve only thought that, not spoken it out loud. The Rain Forest Club hasn’t been popular for several months, once the Kalahari kids started going. Losers. If Pearl had heard the comparison . . .)
Our outfits have upset the school administration many times, but there’s nothing they can really do about it as long as our parents are paying the exorbitant yearly school fee. Sometimes they try to appeal to our better natures. Ha! Good luck with that. But come on, how can we really respect anyone who calls themselves “sister” and “brother”? No one on the entire planet has a sister or brother. I don’t understand why the Temple servants use those words. Are they trying to make us nostalgic for the good old pre-fail days? The time when people had so many children—so many brothers and sisters—that humans overran the world like vermin and destroyed it? Can you imagine living back then? The world must have been positively squirming with humanity. Ugh.
Today, there are only like a million people. That’s a nice, manageable number, I think. Enough to keep the population going without inbreeding. Enough so that I’ll never run out
of hot new guys to meet. (I figure, given that there are only like six truly gorgeous and semi-worthwhile boys in this school of 200, there must be, what, 30,000 potential hotties out there? That’s 7,500 for each of us, even if we don’t share. And we usually share.)
More important, a few million people should be easy to dominate. Back before the Ecofail, queens and presidents ruled far more than that. Pearl figures that she shouldn’t have any trouble at all taking control of only a million people. She rules the Oaks boarding school easily enough.
She’s school chancellor. It’s an official position, voted on by all the other students. But even if she hadn’t been elected, she’d still be in charge of everything.
I’m her vice chancellor. That’s not an elected position. I serve at her whim. And Pearl has been pretty whimsical lately.
“Yarrow,” she hisses, in the voice that pretends to be a whisper but projects embarrassingly to Lynx and Copper, walking at our flanks. “What the bikking hell do you have in your hair?”
I touch the staggered layers of my blond hair self-consciously, and feel my jaw clench, though a second later I force a smile. “Do you like it?” I ask. This morning I was playing around with one of the hair painters and put a streak of aqua in one of the strands. I forgot that streaks were so last year. I’d meant to take it out again, but I must have been in a kind of daze and never got around to it. I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. Weird dreams.
“No,” Pearl says flatly, and I hope that’s the end of it. I’ll strip it out and go back to my natural color at the first break. But Pearl smiles, and her dimples do absolutely nothing to make it look less like a snarl.
And the insults begin.
“If Brother Birch and a jellyfish Bestial had a baby—and
then never hugged it—it would look like your hair.” Pearl gives a self-satisfied smirk at that, and I have to admit it is one of her better ones. Still, Brother Birch is always telling us to respect the Bestials. They’re different, but they feel a calling and follow it, almost like a Temple servant. Should we mock that?
Copper and Lynx aren’t as clever, but just as mean. “You look like an outer circle tramp high on synthmesc who fell into a tub of blue-green algae soup,” Copper says with a snicker.
“Yeah, and you’re so poor you sucked all the algae out of the rest of your hair, and saved that last bit for your boyfriend,” Lynx riffs gleefully.
“Your boyfriend who has pox.”
“Your boyfriend who can’t read an autoloop timetable.”
I smile. Now they’re just being silly, and the sting melts out of their insults. We tease each other like this all the time. And yeah, sure, sometimes it hurts. But none of us means anything by it. I start to laugh along with them.
Until Pearl says, “Your boyfriend who’s a second child.”
I stop cold. It’s a bad insult. It means someone who is an outcast, unloved. Someone who shouldn’t exist. But it’s just one of those words we four toss around, like “tramp.” It doesn’t mean anything, really. It’s just another playfully cruel insult. I even called Pearl that once, in the second week after I transferred to Oaks. She was so impressed at my nerve that I became her second in command, much to the disgust of Copper and Lynx. They tried calling her second child afterward, but it didn’t have the same effect. I’d been the first one brave or stupid enough to do it. Pearl likes innovators.
So it’s nothing. Nothing at all. Why, then, does something knot up painfully in the pit of my stomach? Why do I feel like my throat is squeezing shut?
“What’s wrong with you today?” Pearl asks. She walks off before I can answer, and I scramble to keep up. Already, the other girls are trying to move into my place, literally and metaphorically. I have to squeeze back into my position at Pearl’s side.
Though I’ve only been here at Oaks for a short time, my life at my last school feels like a distant blur. I was at the Caverns, another one of the three or four top schools that the elite scions of Eden attend. From the moment I shed the glossy black uniform of the Caverns and donned Oaks’ leaf and vine–pattern green plaid, I felt like my life was really starting. As if the time before had been meaningless.
That first night Pearl stuck her head into the doorway of my private room, her pale silvery hair swinging almost to her waist, and said, “Who the hell are you? No, scratch that. Who the hell are your parents?” Then she winked at me, because of course all the students had been briefed to not ask me. My mom does spy things in the government that no one is allowed to talk about. It’s the worst-kept secret. Instead of going home to visit her, I have to go to the Center. She’s that top-secret. I go there once a week, right after classes on Friday, and stay until Saturday morning. It takes away prime wilding time, but that’s family, right?
The night I arrived, Pearl invited me into her room and she, Lynx, Copper, and I got tipsy on spiced akavit cocktails. I like to think that she adored my winning personality, but I know that first night she welcomed me just because of who my mom is. That’s okay. If I’d been boring she might have paid attention to me out of self-interest, but I wouldn’t be her friend. Being Pearl’s friend is the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. She makes me feel alive, free, fierce.
Most of the time.
We might have every intention of ruling Eden within a
few years, but for now we’re obedient students. Our wolfish stride automatically slows, becomes less glaringly aggressive, when we spy the tall, gaunt form of headmaster Brother Birch in his leaf-green robes. We want to appear like regular students. We know how to play the game.
“Good morning, Brother Birch,” Pearl says, flashing him a smile bright as the sun. We mumble the same.
“Good morning, girls, and may the blessings of the Earth be with you.” He nods benevolently. Although he’s the head of the Temple of Eden—the most powerful cleric in the world—as well as headmaster of our school, he wears the unassuming robes of the lowest member of his order, and calls himself brother as if he were just ordained last week. He’s not very old, considering his rank; in his forties. But then, he was raised in the Temple, an orphan. His dark hair is a little too long, feral, as if he just ran his hands through it, but his goatee is neatly trimmed and lightly oiled. It smells like . . . I frown. It’s sharp and cool, almost medicinal. Tormentingly familiar, but I can’t quite place it. It makes me want to lean in closer to Brother Birch every time I see him. Of course, I don’t.
He seems like such a simple, kind man. Yet I know he has been initiated into the deepest Mysteries. He makes me feel off balance, though I can never tell why.
“How are you adapting to our school, Yarrow?” he asks me.
My nerves flee, because the answer is so obvious, so genuine. “I love it here!” I gush. “The students are amazing, and I’ve made so many friends.” Well, three friends, two of which want my place. Lots of other students are nice to me, though. That’s the same as having friends, right? Who has time for more than a few close people?
“And your studies?” Brother Birch asks, raising his eyebrows slightly.
“Ah, well . . .” I flush.
“Sister Margarita says you cover your Eco-history notes in drawings. Horrid doodlings, she calls them.” He smiles and presses his fingertips together. “We must pay a bit better attention, mustn’t we?”
I nod, speechless, and he makes the Sign of the Seed between his chest and mine—a closed fist that rises and sprouts as if the fingers are a growing seedling. I bow my head as I am expected to do, and he touches the crown of my head with two fingertips in blessing. “I am watching you with particular interest, Yarrow,” he says.
The girls manage not to giggle until we get into the classroom, out of earshot. “What the hell, Yarrow?” Copper asks. “Particular interest?”
“Ooohhh,” Lynx purrs, “does Yarrow have a thing for Brother Birch?”
A thing? Ew. Like I’d have a thing for a guy three times my age, and a clergyman, at that. I mean, he isn’t bad-looking, and there’s something about his eyes, a peculiar brightness shining even through the flat lens implants every citizen of Eden wears. But he’s definitely not my type. My type is more . . .
Come to think of it, I don’t know what my type is. I try to picture my ideal mate, and I can’t see anything except shadowy images. First, a tall, slim form that seems very far away, and then a larger shadowy figure, broad-chested, looming closer . . .
I shake my head, and make myself laugh along with them. Again. It seems like I’ve been the butt of all the jokes today. My face aches with so much smiling at their jokes at my expense.
So to make myself feel better I find someone to hurt.
Ah, there’s the perfect target—Hawk. He’s one of the most popular boys in Oaks, and the richest. He’s a real power
here, the male equivalent of Pearl. He shouldn’t be so easy to hurt . . . if it weren’t for one little thing.
The poor idiot thinks he loves me.
I start out sweet. If you’re cruel all the time, then your cruelty loses power. You have to temper it with kindness, affection, empathy. Empathy is especially important. How can you truly hurt someone if you don’t understand them deeply and truly? I can read other people pretty well. Pearl says I study them, stare at them, like each person is a new species I’m discovering each time I see them.
Sometimes I feel like I understand other people better than I do myself.
Hawk is already in his Egg, ready for class to begin. The Egg is a virtual reality pod that encases each student individually, giving us a fully immersive learning experience. I watch his hand caress the controls of his datablock interface, toying with the many sensory options he has at his disposal. The movement is so sensual I can’t help but picture that dark-skinned hand caressing something alive. My skin. No, Yarrow, don’t start getting sentimental and attached. Those are Pearl’s words I hear in my head. Love makes people weak, she says, and probably believes. Love is for other people, to feel for you. If you indulge in it, you’ll lose your power. You’ll be a slave, no better than some outer circle peasant prole reporting to his factory every day for the rest of his life.
So I don’t think of Hawk touching my bare flesh. Instead, I envision him caressing something far more exotic and unlikely: a cat. No one has seen a cat for more than two hundred years. No one has seen any animal other than humans. We have vids of them, though. I’ve seen wildebeest by the thousands stampeding across a plain, hurling themselves into rivers, only to be snatched by crocodiles. I’ve seen elegant hummingbirds flirt with flowers, and sinuous snakes
twine around trees. All stored in the cold, dead bytes of a datablock.
Now all those things are gone. It will be centuries before the Earth is healed enough for humans to survive outside of Eden. Here we only have people and technology, and a few hardy species of algae, fungus, and bacteria that provide our food.
“Meow,” I say, and narrow my eyes as I slide into the Egg beside Hawk. They’re made for one person, and it is a tight squeeze. He doesn’t seem to mind. The autumn leaves that make up my long skirt part, exposing a long swath of bare leg. He looks . . . then looks back at my face. His mother raised him right.
“Hi, Yarrow,” he says, scooting over to give me a little more room. “Did you like the flowers I sent to your room?” They weren’t real flowers, of course, but lovely clusters of lilacs spun in synthetic silk.
“Flowers?” I ask, widening my eyes and tilting my head slightly. How bad should I be? Should I simply deny receiving them, or . . .
“Oh!” I say after a long moment of pretending to remember. “I did find some kind of weeds outside my door. I assumed the cleaning staff forgot to remove the trash.” I giggle and tilt my head fetchingly to one side. “I’m afraid I suggested to Brother Birch that Jessamine should be fired immediately.”
Bikk, I slipped up again. I shouldn’t know the cleaning lady’s name. She’s so far beneath us. Pearl would never let me live that down, if she knew. I’m always doing embarrassing stuff like that. I’d say it’s because of my mother’s work: I tend to notice trivial details. Then Pearl would give me a look of near disgust, as if knowing a cleaning lady’s name is like knowing the name of a piece of garbage. Unthinkable, laughable.
Hawk doesn’t even notice that part. I can see his face tighten when I bad-mouth his gift, but he’s too well bred to react. The upper classes don’t get mad, Pearl says. We get even.
I’ve made the first cut, now I have to sweeten it. Stab . . . stop . . . kiss . . . then twist. That’s how you make it really hurt. Swiftly, I lean in and kiss his cheek. Or, I try to kiss his cheek. His reflexes are good, and he turns his head so fast my lips land on the edge of his. I fight the urge to recoil in confusion. I don’t want to kiss him, not really. I just want him to love me. I want everyone to love me. I want to own them. I want to have loyal people around me who will never leave me.
Still, the quick kiss has the desired effect. His face relaxes, and he smiles. I’m forgiven.
“Never mind,” he says. “I’ll send you more. Better flowers.”
I was almost telling him the truth. I did get the flowers, but as soon as I saw them I gave them to Jessamine to throw away, or put in her no doubt squalid little apartment, or anything she liked. I couldn’t stand the sight of them.
He leans against me in the tight confines of the Egg. “Are you looking forward to the Snow Festival tonight?”
I shrug. “It’s an excuse for a new dress.” I’ve seen sixteen snow days in my life, and they must have been pretty boring because I have hardly any memory of any of them. Only the barest abstract recollection of the dances, the feasts, the merriment. The only image that is truly clear is a memory of staring up to a small patch of sky, seeing the stars seem to multiply as snowflakes formed, then filled the heavens in a blizzard that lasted exactly one night. Where was I for that Snow Festival?
“It always seems weird to me, too,” Hawk says, catching my jaded tone and interpreting it as he likes. When someone has a crush on you, they’ll put the best spin on whatever you
say. “I mean, there’s no natural precipitation here, and we have to conserve water, so why does the EcoPan program one night of snow every year?”
“And one day of rain six months later,” I add. The snow is always at night, but the rain falls in the daytime. I remember being somewhere high for one Rain Festival, feeling exposed, with a sense of nervous excitement, tilting my head back to catch fat raindrops on my tongue as the noonday sky grew black with artificial thunderclouds.
“I think the EcoPan does it to make us feel a little more normal,” Hawk muses. “I mean, look at this.” He fiddles with the controls of his Egg and suddenly we are surrounded in a panorama of a Snow Festival from many years back. It must have been before I was born. The clothes all look out of date, the sort of flowing, casual, free garments in muted colors I imagine our grandparents wore.
The Egg is designed to give students a full immersive experience. I don’t even know why we have teachers, really. They could just program our lessons into the Egg and take the rest of the day off. Inside the Egg, the temperature drops, and despite the singing and cheers of the crowd that seems alive around me, there is a hushed feeling. I’m right there, in the crowd, the darkness kept at bay by lamplight. My senses are sure of it, even if my mind knows it is all an illusion. I can’t help but smile when an elderly woman next to me raises a wide-eyed baby up into the air, holds out its chubby little hand to catch a snowflake. Hawk hits another button, and the scene shifts jarringly to a frozen artificial pond, solid for one night only. Couples glide awkwardly on its surface, and the Egg drops a VR hood over my head and makes me feel like I’m skating alongside of them.
When Hawk turns it off, I’m breathless. The Egg has returned to ambient temperature and is just a machine again, its
delusions hidden. But my cheeks feel raw and rosy from the recent cold.
I shake my head against the unexpected sensation of exhilaration. I’d meant to make myself feel better by making someone else feel worse. Instead, the person I’d meant to hurt for entertainment, for power, for practice, has made me feel alive. Happy, I’d almost say.
Why does that feel like a novelty? Aren’t I always happy? What reason do I have to not be happy? I have everything.
I feel a strange uncertainty, and it makes me angry. So when Hawk leans close and asks me for the first dance at the school Snow Festival tonight, I lift my chin haughtily and snap, “I’m not going to that stupid kids’ party. My friends and I have other plans.”
We don’t, and I know we’ll be there because we’ve been planning our outfits forever. But at the end of class Pearl slides up to me.
“Did you hear, the outer circles are having a contest for king and queen of the Snow Festival. The winner gets money, and a night in the innermost entertainment circle.”
I’d heard something about it. “An effort to boost morale among the lower classes, right?” I ask, not really interested.
“Exactly,” she says. “And what do you think they’re going to do with all that morale, huh? Start making decisions? Wanting things above their station?” She laughs derisively. “No good can come of letting outer circle proles get their hopes up about . . . anything. Why let them into our circles, even for a night? Next thing you now they’ll be wanting their kids to go to Oaks!”
“I’m sure you’re right, Pearl,” I say uncertainly. Pearl cares far more about these things than I do. But she probably has a point. “But what can anyone do about it, if the powers that be have authorized . . .”
She silences me with a look. “Oh, you sweet little thing! I am the powers that be.”
THE LAST CLASS of the day is a tedious hour of Earth Stewardship, where one of the Brothers dozes while our Eggs instruct us on the finer points of geology. It is just starting on something called fracking, where people, not satisfied with destroying the Earth’s crust, began bikking up the inside of the planet, too. We haven’t gotten very far, though, when the bell tower chimes the end of the school day, and we jet out of our Eggs faster than the Brother can jolt awake and shout, “To be continued tomorrow!”
I love our bell tower, the Oaks carillon, the arrogance of those giant chimes looming over the campus. They boom our schedule out to half the inner circles, screaming to the world that we are the ones who matter. It is our waking and studying, playing and sleeping that count, not yours. So what if you want to sleep late? If carillon rings to wake Oaks students at 6 a.m., you have to get up, too.
The last bell’s peals still echo over the elite heart of Eden as we run to our dorms. They are set up with two or three bedrooms around a common leisure room. Before I came to Oaks, Pearl was the only student with a private room, arranged through some scheming of her own, and no doubt her parents’ money. When I arrived mid-term, though, there were no spare dorm rooms, so an extra teacher’s room was converted for my use. I’m on the opposite side of campus and closer to their supervision, but my big bedroom, private bath, and little parlor for entertaining are the envy of all the other students. Particularly Pearl. She keeps mentioning to the staff how isolated I feel away from the student body, so I’m sure as soon as a shared dorm opens up I’ll be out.
For now, though, it gives me a little something to lord over Pearl.
Pearl grabs my hand and hurries me along with an uncharacteristic enthusiasm. We’re supposed to be above actually getting excited about anything.
Usually we meet in her room, but today she drags us into mine. It makes me uneasy. Pearl likes to be in charge, at the pinnacle of everything, the cynosure of every eye. If she’s putting the attention on me, she must have a reason for it.
“We’re going out tonight!” she says to the others, and explains her idea to steal the Snow Queen title from some undeserving outer circle girl.