Rebels of Eden
SOMETIMES I THINK running away is what I do best.
As I run through the forest, my bare feet hardly make a sound on the dew-damp leaves. That’s not the case with my pursuer. His feet crash like the paws of an infuriated bear, snapping branches and crushing tender new growth. I can hear him cursing.
“Doesn’t matter how fast you run, or where you hide. I can smell the city stink on you. You can’t escape. This is my home.”
I shift my pace to leap over the thick trunk of a fallen tree, then remember Mira’s advice: snakes hide under the crevice of fallen trees. If you step or jump too close on the far side, you’ll be in perfect range of a strike. Snakes are calm and docile creatures, she added, unlike the malicious serpents many pre-fail humans believed them to be. “But if you stepped on me while I was sleeping, I’d bite you!” she told me, flashing her teeth so white in her dark, freckled face. With her good advice ringing in my memory, I instead jump on top of the fallen trunk and then leap far clear of any disgruntled rattler.
I’d almost rather face the rattlesnake than Zander.
He’s getting closer, and I clutch the stolen strip of fabric
tighter in my fist. I’d rather die than be captured, I think . . . then burst into laughter through my panting breath. I’ve said that kind of thing before, in much worse circumstances. I meant it then. Somehow my body and brain, recalling those past dangers, feel it even now. It has become second nature to me. I won’t yield. Zander will never catch me. He’s bigger and stronger than me, far meaner, but I’m lithe and fast. My tireless legs will carry me to salvation. As long as I have the great open Earth before me, I’m safe.
And then, the Earth ends.
I should have known. Zander knew—I realize now that he was chasing me here, herding me. I thought I was running on dewy ground, but of course it is far too late in the day for dew to remain. It burned off hours ago in the strong late-summer sunshine. No, the damp leaves were caused by mist from the waterfall.
It’s swirling around me now, heavy enough to look mystically silver up here on the high elevation. Unfortunately not nearly thick enough to hide me from my enemy.
For he made it clear on my first day in Harmonia that I was his enemy. The place of my birth ensured that before he knew a thing about me.
“Give it up, City.” He won’t call me by my name, only insults about my origin. He lords his natural birth over me and the other refugees from Eden. I bear the brunt because I’m the only one near his age.
I whirl and face him, the sound of the waterfall raging behind me. I don’t want to look at it. Not from up here. I’ve seen it from the bottom, where the rushing water cascades into a rock-lined pool in a never-ending crashing tumult. It is a scary enough force of nature seen from safe, dry, level land. If I look at it now, I might lose my nerve. And I’ll need all the courage I possess to face whatever Zander has in store for me.
I’m used to heights, but that just means I know enough to be absolutely sure I don’t want to fall off of them. Or be pushed.
When EcoPan set me free from Eden, and my mother and the others took to Harmonia, I was sure that life in nature must be a paradise. Isn’t it what mankind has been awaiting for generations? And in many ways it is. But after three months in the wild, I’ve discovered that people are still people, whether they are in the city or the forest, no matter if they are trapped or free.
“Just don’t be alone with him,” Mira’s boyfriend Carnelian once advised me. Easy for him to say. He spends as much time indoors as an Eden resident, tinkering with the small bits of tech we’re allowed to help us live harmoniously with nature. Zander hates technology, so it’s easy for someone like Carnelian to avoid him. But Carnelian took his Passage Test last year, and got a high ranking. I take the test tomorrow, so I’ve had to devote all my waking hours to the outdoors, learning how to navigate this strange, wild world.
I thought I was doing pretty well, until Zander started in on me. So far, it’s just been with cutting words. But I see the way he and his brothers look at the Eden-born, like we’re decadent, corrupt, weak. I’ll always be an outsider.
Now, standing about ten feet away, he gives me a slow, malicious grin. I’m trapped, and he can take his time.
“Hand it over.” He extends his hand, as if he’s the most reasonable person in the world.
I take a tiny step back and shake my head. The small, loose rocks grate worryingly beneath my feet. If I’m not careful, I’ll fall before he even decides to push me.
No, he couldn’t be that terrible, could he? Just because I was born somewhere else? EcoPan chose me for liberation. Shouldn’t that make me worthy in his eyes?
When I don’t hand over the flag, his outstretched hand slowly balls into a fist. “Now,” he says. “Before I lose my patience.”
I just clutch it tighter. This is a bikking game! Two teams of athletes, each guarding the flag at their home base, each trying to steal their opponent’s flag. It’s supposed to be fun, build camaraderie, and train us for life in the wild—an excuse to run, hide, and stalk through the woods. But Zander, his brothers, and his friends have turned it into a war. They never expected an Eden-born girl like me to exceed them in speed and stealth. Now Zander sees it as a direct battle between Eden and Harmonia. A battle he apparently intends to win at any cost.
“You’re going to fail tomorrow, too,” he snarls at me. “Might as well get used to it today.”
He’s also in the Passage Test tomorrow.
“You know I’m going to get that flag one way or another. Tell you what, if you hand it over, I’ll only break your arm. How about that, City? With a broken arm you might squeak by with the lowest passing rank . . . if your city-scum mother helps you.”
I catch my breath, and my jaw tightens. “Don’t you even mention my mother!” Until three months ago I thought she was dead, gunned down by Eden Greenshirts as she tried to help me escape to a better life. I was overjoyed to find her alive here in Harmonia. She’s the most precious thing to me.
He ignores me. “But if you make me take it from you, I’ll break your leg. You won’t be able to take the Passage Test. Maybe not ever, if I break it badly enough.”
“You wouldn’t!” I gasp, overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all. “We’re supposed to live in harmony here. What have I ever done to you, Zander?”
He shrugs. “Do you ever watch the wolves, City?” There’s
a pack in the mountain range nearby. Sometimes they skirt close to Harmonia, but mostly they avoid us. The elder named Night took some of us to watch the pack at its den.
“They work together, sure, but every pack has a leader. The other wolves don’t dare disobey him, or . . .” He mimes slitting a throat, and I wince. But he hasn’t ever plunged a knife into another human being. He doesn’t understand what it really means. I do. Maybe he’s all talk.
Or maybe he just hasn’t had a chance to be as cruel as he is capable of being, yet.
“When Night took you, did you see that scrawny little black wolf? Every time another wolf looked at him he rolled on his back and pissed on his own belly. Do you know why? He came from another pack. Kicked out, just like you. The other wolves hate him. He’ll always be an outsider.
“We’re a lot like wolves,” he goes on. “I’m coming in top in the Passage Test, and working my way up from there. Someday I’ll be leader—the alpha wolf of this pack—and when I am, I’ll make the decisions, and all the corrupt city scum will know their place. Until then, I start with you!”
He lunges for me, and in that instant I make a split-second decision. Better to choose my own destiny than to let someone else choose for me.
I whirl, and leap into the roaring, misty void. The glimpse I get of Zander’s utter frustration is enough to make me laugh like a lunatic as I fly off the cliff into the waterfall. I know that only adds to his rage, and that makes this suicidal leap almost worthwhile.
It’s just a game, my mother’s voice seems to whisper to me as I fall.
No, I think. This is life. Life and death. Everything in Eden, everything out here, has serious consequences. The smallest decisions matter.
But falling and philosophy don’t mix . . . at least not for long. I’m a climber, with skill gained from scaling the high wall that was my childhood prison. Falling is a climber’s nightmare, but for just a moment, my nightmare is beautiful. In seemingly slow motion I feel like I’m flying more than falling. The waterfall is lovely and savage, viscerally real in a way Eden simulations never could be, and I glory in the roaring sound, the chill. Beneath me, in a flash of clarity through the mist, I see my friends and teammates: vital, dark Mira like a lithe wild animal, and shy but earnest Carnelian, most visible of all with his shock of orange hair. They’re looking up at me, their mouths open, shouting something I can’t hear over the surging water.
Then time catches up with me and the beauty becomes terror as I merge with the crushing waterfall. It knocks the wind out of me, blinds me, and I brace for impact on the rocks below, thinking, crazily, We won! I still have the flag!
The landing is terrible . . . but not as bad as I’d thought. I miss the rocks and smack with an agonizing thunderclap into the water, but my situation isn’t much better. The endless waterfall is pushing me down. I’m stuck in a swirling eddy under its crushing weight. Time and again I see light at the surface through the swirling bubbles, but I can’t reach it. I learned to swim as soon as I got to Harmonia, but all this water is still alien to me. In Eden, all water was precious, rationed and recycled. Here it is bountiful and wild . . . and deadly.
My lungs are on fire with the ache to breathe. I tumble, disoriented, losing hope, until at last my feet touch the solid, slippery rock below. I shove up with all my strength and burst to a place that is free of the cascade’s terrible push. Suddenly everything around me is calm. The water is clear and still, and I see the silver bellies of fish as they dart away from me. In that moment of peace everything seems possible, and I smile.
I swim to the shore, and my friends are holding out branches for me to grab, making a human chain to pull me to safety.
Gasping and shivering, I stagger away from the water’s edge. Mira holds me up on one side, Carnelian on the other.
“Great Earth!” Carnelian says. “Did he push you?”
“No,” I say with the faintest smile, and hold up the sodden flag, symbol of our victory, and my determination. “I jumped.”
High atop the waterfall I can just make out Zander’s ferocious scowl before he stalks back into the forest. The only good thing about having an enemy is beating them.
But somehow I have a feeling that Zander isn’t finished with me. Tomorrow, when the Passage Test begins, he’ll have plenty of opportunities.
As soon as I catch my breath, we jog back to our base at the edge of the city. It’s just a formality at this point, though. We’ve won. Zander’s brothers and other teammates are far behind, and there’s no way he himself can get down from the waterfall in time to intercept us.
Unless he jumps, too, I think with a stifled giggle.
The rest of the team, the ones who’d stayed behind guarding our flag, greet us with cheers, and in a moment I’m swept up with Mira and Carnelian onto their shoulders, reveling in their cheers. It still feels so good to have friends, to be able to go out into the world freely. I spent almost all my life hiding, and when I was finally a member of a community, I wasn’t myself, but Yarrow, a programmed product of the Center scientists.
Bits of her voice come uncomfortably back to me in my head sometimes. What are you doing with these losers? spoiled, selfish Yarrow sometimes whispers to me. That subliminal voice makes me deeply uncomfortable, and I have to remind myself that though the programming still lingers in my brain,
it isn’t me. Because it sure feels like me. In fact, the more she talks inside my head, the more like me she feels.
Sometimes there’s another little voice, too, a low murmur of approval or concern that hardly seems separate from my own conscience. Yet there is an alien quality to it, a fascination that makes me want to both shut it out and listen harder.
No matter who is talking in my muddled brain, I make my own choices in this life. I’ll never let society’s programming dictate right and wrong to me.
Or a computer’s programming.
I look at all my friends, and smile. The people carrying Mira and Carnelian come together so the happy couple can kiss, and I make myself smile even more broadly to hide the pain seeing their happiness causes me.
I’ve kissed two people, and I love them both.
Both of them are trapped in Eden, maybe captured, maybe tortured, maybe with their minds wiped and reprogrammed. Maybe dead.
Here in Harmonia, they tell us not to think about what we left behind in Eden. That was nothing more than a trial. Those lucky enough to pass now have the whole world in front of them. Look forward, not back, Elder Night says to the newcomers.
Here I have my mom, and a lot of new friends. I have fresh breezes and real rain, plants and rich damp earth and squirrels frolicking in the trees. The food is authentic, not synthesized from algae. No one is controlling me. I should be completely happy.
But I can’t stop thinking about those I left behind. Lark. Lachlan. My twin brother, Ash. Rainbow and all the other second children. Even strangers, the anonymous people trapped without even realizing they are in a prison. Most citizens of Eden think they live in a sanctuary that keeps them
safe from a deadly, poisoned world. All of those people should be free.
I said I can’t stop thinking about them all, but I lied. More and more, as the weeks and now three months pass, I find myself forgetting about them. First it would be for a few minutes. I’d be relishing the novel enjoyment of some new fresh fruit, and only be thinking about what a wonderful place the outside was. Only thinking of my own luck, my own pleasure. Later the forgetting would last longer. I’d be chatting with Mira for hours as we walked in the woods, then go to bed tired and happy. Only when my head hit the pillow would I think of Lark, imprisoned in the Center. Of Lachlan and Ash, hunted, their whereabouts unknown.
Then the guilt hits me. I should be thinking about them all the time! I should be convincing all these natural-borns to help me break into Eden and free the trapped residents. Or if they won’t help, I should go myself. Why should I be the one to enjoy the outside, just because EcoPan chose me?
Then I get lulled by some sport, some friend, by the fascinating agricultural practices by which we grow our own food, by some new animal I’d only seen in vids . . . and for a few moments I forget again.
Mira hops down from our teammates’ shoulders and throws an arm around me, hugging me tight. “Well done, Rowan! I’m so glad you joined us in Harmonia!”
I hug her back, and try to fight the sadness that lingers behind all the happiness as we make our way back to the village. I need to keep my head clear. Tonight is the Wolf Moon ceremony. Tomorrow, I compete with other newcomers and those who have just come of age, to determine my position in this society.
When we’re almost to Harmonia, a sweaty and angry Zander blocks our path. He had to be running at top speed
to catch up with us, and his face is red, his arms scratched by thorns.
“You’re deluded if you think this scum from Eden is anything but trouble for Harmonia,” he shouts to the group.
“Shut up, Zander,” Mira snaps.
“Shut your own mouth, dead-eye’s daughter,” Zander growls. Mira recoils. Dead-eye is a derogatory slang for first-generation people from Eden, referring to the dull, flat color of their lens implants. Mira’s eyes are a beautiful, vibrant honey-brown flecked with gold. Is this just the worst thing Zander can think of to insult her with?
Mira is bristling, looking like she’s about to hurl herself at him, but Carnelian holds her back, murmuring calming words.
“We’ve seen it before,” Zander goes on. “You know the story is true. Nothing that comes from that stinking city is good. I don’t care if EcoPan picked her out. If she’s the best of the worst, she’s still corrupt. But think about it—what if she was just clever enough to fool EcoPan. Those city people would stop at nothing to get out here and destroy what we have, just like their ancestors did.”
A few people scoff at him, but I hear murmurs of agreement, too. Some of my friends look at me with new suspicion in their eyes. I remember from being Yarrow how a charismatic, loud absolutist can sway popular opinion. It happened with Pearl, and it looks like it is happening again now.
“Rowan isn’t dangerous,” Carnelian begins in his soft-spoken way.
“She wanted to go back,” Zander says, eyes narrowed at me. “If she just wanted to go home, I’d say good riddance.” He spits derisively on the ground. “But she wants to bring them out! Didn’t you hear her when she first came? She wants all that filth to spill into our paradise.”
“They’re not like that!” I shout back at him. “The people in Eden are just like the people out here. We’re all human.”
“People from Eden are filth,” he sneers. “Weaklings at the mercy of technology. Just like you. Just like your mom.”
I can take him insulting me, but not my mom. I launch myself at him, not liking my odds against his strength and bulk and meanness, but not caring. If I can get one good punch in, I’ll be happy. Smash the smugness off that face, and I’ll take whatever beating follows.
But it’s not to be. Mira, Carnelian, and the dozen others with us close around us, pulling us apart. We break into two groups, Zander with the larger contingent, and after a few more shouted curses and threats the conflict is over. For now.