Read Solstice Online

Authors: Jane Redd

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian, #Teen & Young Adult, #Mysteries & Thrillers, #Mystery & Detective, #Romantic, #Romance, #Science Fiction & Dystopian

Solstice (22 page)

BOOK: Solstice
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I typed in a question as well. The only diseases I’d heard of were easily cured with a day or two in the hospice.

It was clear when my question popped up, as the professor suddenly looked nervous. “Another question came in: Can diseases stop a life cycle?” He looked up, taking his time to answer. “Yes. There are diseases that exist in the C Level population which can cut life cycles short. Some children born into B Level have these diseases as well, regardless of the precautions taken during in vitro.”

The words sunk in, and I tried to imagine a child succumbing to a disease. All around me, the students were completely silent. This was new information for all of us. Possibly hundreds or thousands of people, slowly dying of diseases. I typed in another question, as several others did the same on their tablets.

I wrote: “What happens to the children?”

The professor said nothing. The silence among the students grew heavier as he read through our questions. Finally, he said, “The question is: Are these diseases curable? They are most of the time, at least in adults. It depends on how well the person has taken care of himself. I cannot say more. That is information regulated to the government’s medical councils.”

I had a new topic to research. What were these diseases and how was the government stopping them? And what happened to the babies born with them?

As the professor continued to talk, I marveled that children were still born diseased. B Level women were carefully screened before they were allowed to have a child. In A Level class, we’d been taught that only the most promising eggs were fertilized and placed in the woman’s womb. All of the children I’d grown up with only suffered very minor illnesses. Was that because the ones who were less healthy had been relocated? What would they do with seriously ill children? Maybe there were hospice centers for them, although I’d never heard of any.

I had trouble concentrating the rest of the period.

After class, I hurried from the room. The men’s classrooms were in the next building, with the general auditorium connecting the two. I hoped to catch a glimpse of Sol coming out of the men’s building. Maybe from a distance I could tell if there was something different about him—something that might explain Chalice’s confusing message.

I moved through the hallway, dodging students as it filled rapidly. Had class let out early? It seemed everyone was outside of class, and they were all headed in one direction. I saw a couple of girls glancing at their tablets, then hurrying on. I stopped as people moved around me like a parting river. Finally I pulled out my tablet, too. A message flashed on the screen:
Alert. All students to the auditorium.

My heart sank.

I hurried along with the rest, arriving in the auditorium in time to secure a seat in one of the back rows of the girls’ section. Everyone was silent, except for some shuffling, as they stared at the front of the stage.

Three students stood there, heads lowered, their hands bound in front of them with something similar to the ankle cuff I wore on the journey to prison. I glanced around to look for Chalice. She sat several rows in front of me. Sol was nowhere to be seen in the boys’ section.

The walls were lined with dozens of officials, as well as professors, their eyes hard on the students. The auditorium doors shut, followed by the unmistakable sound of them sealing into locked position—a sound I knew all too well. The tension in the room seemed to double.

I looked over at Chalice, but she stared straight ahead like everyone else around her.

A man wearing a white blazer stood up in the front of the room and climbed the steps to the stage. An Examiner. I hadn’t seen him when I came in. If possible, the auditorium grew even quieter.

“Students.” The Examiner’s voice was amplified, his voice booming even in the very back rows. “We have an unfortunate situation at the University this week. These students were caught performing a religious rite.”

A few murmurs sounded about the room, but then everyone fell back into silence.

One of the boys on the stage shuffled his feet. What was going through the heads of the exposed students? Their Harmony implants must not have been functioning correctly, or they never would have become involved in a religious rituals—it could earn them Demotion.

“We’ve brought them before you so they can name their coconspirators,” the Examiner continued. “We believe there are more than just these three who are part of the cult.”

My head snapped up as everyone started looking around at each other.

The Examiner continued. “We will not leave until every last person is identified.” His voice grew louder. “We cannot afford to disobey the rules the Legislature has so carefully selected. We are one society with one voice. When we break off and form any sort of group, religious or otherwise, we begin to separate in unity and purpose, and such separation will be our downfall as a society.”

I huddled in my seat, feeling sick for the guilty, wherever they were in the audience. Did they feel sick, too? Would it break them down into admitting the truth?

“We are truly disappointed as a University,” the Examiner said. “Coming here and studying to be a part of the O Level society is a privilege only extended to the brightest of graduates. A breech of this magnitude is serious, and those on this stage will be Demoted. No one will leave until every member of the cult is brought forward. If we discover someone has not come forward, the consequences will be severe.”

Now I knew why the doors had locked behind us. I looked down at my tablet. It was blank. It seemed our communication had been cut off as well. Everyone sat in silence.

The normally cool room grew warmer. I felt prickles of sweat beading at my forehead, and I wasn’t even part of the cult. Minutes passed. No one moved, no one spoke. I discreetly wiped my hairline.

All eyes were on the Examiner as he stepped forward and pointed an agitator rod toward one of the students on the stage. The boy’s eyes visibly widened as he followed the Examiner’s movement. But before the boy gave any other reaction, the Examiner shocked him. The boy crumpled to his knees with a cry. His hands shot out in front of him but did a poor job of stopping his fall since they were cuffed together.

Everyone in the auditorium flinched, then seemed to collectively shrink.

Another step, and the Examiner faced the next student.

The boy stepped back, defenseless. I looked away as he screamed and fell to the stage.

The Examiner’s voice boomed out, “Does anyone want to step forward now, or do you enjoy watching your fellow cult members suffer?”

In the boys’ section, a young man stood up, his reddish hair cut so short that I could see his pink scalp. “I’m a member,” he said in a low voice that I could barely hear from my seat.

The closest official immediately grabbed him and marched him to the stage. He took his place with the others after having his wrists clamped together. He was visibly trembling.

The Examiner raised his agitator. “Anyone else ready to come forward? Last chance to choose Demotion.”

No one moved. No one made a sound.

Then someone to my left stood, a few rows up.

No.
I almost said out loud.

It was as if time had stopped moving as I watched Chalice’s thin frame grabbed by the thick hands of an official. What was she doing? I thought about the ring she insisted on wearing. Could she really be part of this cult?

My body felt cold and stiff, despite the warmth of the room, as I watched Chalice walk to the stage. I didn’t understand.

Neither, apparently, did the other students on the stage. They looked at her with confusion and surprise evident in their faces. Of course Chalice wasn’t a part of their cult—how could she be? She had been altered until just this morning.

“Very good,” the Examiner was saying, a triumphant look on his face. He back turned to face the audience.

“This is my final request.” His wide eyes scanned the auditorium, seeming to pierce through each person individually and collectively at the same time. And then, for a split second, so briefly that I wondered if I had imagined it, he looked directly at me. And I knew, even from that distance, that he was the same Examiner who’d handed me the satchel with Rose’s book.

The officials surrounded the students on the stage and escorted them through a concealed door. The two on the ground were carried off. I continued to stare at the Examiner, though he no longer looked in my direction. I gripped my hands on the arm rests, stopping myself from jumping up and calling out to Chalice.

There was a faint whooshing sound, and I realized that the auditorium doors had been unlocked and opened. We hadn’t been excused yet, but at least we weren’t locked in anymore and the warmth in the room started to dissipate.

My tablet buzzed to life. I looked down and saw a message had come in from Chalice. I clicked on it and was able to read it just as the encryption changed the letters. The first word was already a line of symbols, but the next three words were:

Don’t find me
.

I leaned forward so the girl next to me couldn’t read the message as it encrypted itself and faded from my tablet. I didn’t know what the first word of the message had said, but “don’t find me” was plain enough.

Chalice had claimed to be a member of the religious group on purpose. But why? What had her message about Sol really meant? What had she found out? Had she remembered something from when she was altered?

I was sweating again with fear, with worry, with confusion.

The Examiner started speaking, and I had to reign in my emotions to pay attention. “We’d like to recognize a very special student for uncovering the illegal cult. Please come forward, Solomon.”

My body trembled as Sol walked up to the stage. His expression was passive, accepting.

After a few words of praise for Sol, the Examiner said, “We’ll return to our regular activities now, with what I hope is a serious warning.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off Sol. He looked like he usually did, his dark hair unkempt, his eyes a moody gray. I couldn’t believe he would turn anyone in. He’d broken his share of rules in A Level, after all.

Then my mouth went dry as a new possibility entered my mind. Had
Sol
been testing me? Was he being given instructions like Chalice had been?

Suddenly I felt like I didn’t know my former friend at all.

The assembly was over. The officials pocketed their agitators and allowed people to exit through the auditorium doors. I stayed in my seat as everyone else filed out of the room. Those in my row were forced to maneuver around me.

I couldn’t look away from Sol as he spoke with the Examiner. They seemed deep in conversation, as if they were hanging on each other’s words. A shiver went through me. I had told Sol about Rose’s book, and now Sol was speaking to the same Examiner who’d given it to me. What was to stop Sol from saying something to get me into trouble? After all, I’d tried to meet him after curfew.

Forcing myself to breathe in steady gulps of air, I told myself to relax. This was probably part of some test. But I couldn’t relax. Chalice being counted among the cult members sounded dangerous no matter what angle I considered it from.

Sol and the Examiner left the stage, and Sol walked up the aisle toward the back doors. I stood and left my row, waiting for him to reach me. Other students brushed passed me, heading out of the auditorium.

But I kept my gaze on Sol. He wouldn’t be able to avoid me this time.

Twenty-nine

“Are you an informer?” I hissed when Sol tried to move past me.

I turned and kept pace with him. Officials glanced at me, then let their eyes follow Sol. He was a school hero, making their job very easy.

Don’t talk to Sol,
Chalice had told me. But she was gone now. I was more confused and lost than ever. Had she learned something that made Demotion more appealing than staying at the University?

Taking a deep breath to push past my fear, I grabbed Sol’s hand.

That got his attention.

He tore his hand away and turned with an icy glare on his face.

My words stuck in my throat for an instant, but my desperation drove me to ask, “What happened to you, Sol?”

He blinked slowly, and the iciness melted to just plain cold. “Science group is at four.”

“Is that all you’re going to say? Did you see Chalice taken away with the cult—the one she has nothing to do with?” I heaved a breath, lowering my voice so the passing students wouldn’t hear. “What happened to the boy who told me about the fields of red peonies?”

His face changed color. Pale.

And then I knew. He was hiding something, certainly from me, and definitely from the University. The only comforting thing about it was that it might mean he was no informer.

His eyes narrowed, and I swear there were bits of fire in them when he whispered, “Meet me at three thirty.”

He turned and walked away before I could badger him any further. I stared after him, wondering if I’d just made a big mistake.

I spent the next hours in class, trying desperately to concentrate. I took notes and followed along with the lecture, but all I saw was Sol’s face—his piercing glare and the fire in his eyes when he said to meet him. It was the most raw emotion I’d ever seen from him.

During the lunch hour I ate quickly, ignoring the occasional glances from the other girls. How many of them knew I was friends with the girl who’d just declared she was a cult member? After lunch I went into the WorldNet lab and began searching for
deadly diseases
. Link after link was broken.

Anytime anyone had so much as a runny nose or cough, they were put into the hospice for a full recovery. No one I knew had ever had a severe disease—one that could break a life cycle. I thought back to the children behind the bars in the prison lab. Not only had they been altered, but many of them looked as if they couldn’t perform the most basic tasks. Chalice had been able to fully function after her altering. So what was the difference?

The bubonic plague came up with a link. The plague had swept through Europe in the fourteenth century and then again in the seventeenth. I needed something more recent, though, something that happened after the Burning. Staring at the console screen, I remembered something my grandmother had written in her book:
Father has the damp disease, the one that used to be called pneumonia and treated with antibiotics. With no antibiotics available, there is nothing much we can do for his condition.

BOOK: Solstice
8.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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