Finding Atlas

Annabelle Tate doesn't remember what life was like before the Colony. All she knows is that life during it is dreadful. When a citizen turns 17 they're automatically tested on their loyalty, agility, intelligence and mental well being. If they fail they go through an elusive process known as "fixing." When Annabelle fails she's whisked into a world of espionage, archery, instinct and brutality to fight and inspire a dying nation she once sought allegiance to.

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3. Ritual of Blood

RITUAL OF BLOOD

 

            

             There was a collective hush in the room that broke out into murmuring. A chaos of words and emotions flooded and overrode my mind. All I could think about was that my worst fears had come true. I was to be purged—the words rang in my head like a sharp alarm. I felt weak and a queasy feeling overtook me. It was like that one time when we’d drunk spoilt milk for a week straight because the supplies from the surface had been tainted. My stomach had protested at me and I’d vomited until I could only dry heave over the toilet. I felt that sickness twisting and wrenching at my gut now.

 

             I would be killed. My family would have to thrive without me. I thought of Ellie’s soft brown eyes. Dad trying to teach me to place my feet just so on the mat and I remembered the taste of mom’s cinnamon buns.  James was the first to look over at me and his fingers found the hem of his shirt. He and I both knew that I wouldn’t be able to experience those small moments again. The littlest things suddenly became monumental when you were faced with your own mortality.

 

             “Anna,” he breathed out and there was no laughter lacing the edge of his voice now. No one could muster a laugh when someone in your class was purged. The quarter before it had been Adam Langley who had scored low on the physicality portion; we’d watched as a bullet had punctured the back of his head. It had been quick but it hadn’t been painless. He’d squealed and his eyes had widened in shock—these were the things the whole Colony was subjected to watching. But it didn’t mean that you ever got used to the lingering taste and aura of death.

 

             “James,” I found his frosted blue gaze and I couldn’t keep the sobs from bubbling up my throat. Professor Bingham cleared her throat as I forced my whitened knuckles into my mouth. I sniffed harshly and I watched her, my cheeks wet with tears.

 

             “Annabelle, they’re coming to escort you to Province 8 … I’m sorry I really am,” Professor Bingham murmured quietly. Her green eyes looked glassy and I thought she might’ve cried but in truth she hardly knew me. Still, any teacher would miss a student they’d seen almost every morning for the past one hundred and eighty days.

 

             “Thank you professor for everything, I really mean it.”

 

             “It’s been a pleasure, I know I was a bit of a tyrant but for what it’s worth you were a very bright student,” and then I was pulled into a surprisingly comforting hug. Professor Bingham straightened her shirt and pulled back, her stern expression back in place.

 

             “Be strong okay, don’t let them see you break,” I nodded once, sharp and sudden at her words.

 

              I took one final look at everyone—my classmates’ faces all somber and grave. Miles narrowed his eyes trying to suppress his hot tears before he moved his way over to me shakily.

 

             “Sis…” and he was falling into me and crying and sobbing noisily. Miles was a lot of things: silly, rambunctious, obnoxious and annoying but I still loved him to pieces. He was other things too: brave to the point of recklessness, brash and willing to say anything to defend someone and he was extremely loyal.

 

             Soon James, Collin, Josephine and Diana were all pulling us into a group hug and it was a circle of warmth and support. I felt loved, I felt accepted. And most of all I knew I wanted to stay and for the first time I wondered if there was a way to retake the test, shift around the rulings that made our society function. I wondered if there was a loophole.

 

             A curious thing happened, the students that had lingered started to gradually get up and they surrounded us. There was a sense of camaraderie that overwhelmed me as their hands found me: patting me on the back, pulling me into one-armed hugs. This wasn’t bonding—this was the very epitome of support, an “I feel your pain and empathize with you” sort of situation. This was a genuine outpouring of caring and love borne out of the reality of one of your own walking to their death.

 

             Then a chorus of voices spoke:

 

             “I’m wishing you luck, Anna …,” the Chinese girl with widened hips smiled at me although it never reached her eyes. How could it? It wouldn’t have reached my eyes had it been her in my place.

            

             “Stay strong Annabelle, I know you can do it!” A boy with sandy hair and a scar over his bottom lip tried to encourage me.

            

             “For what it’s worth … you shouldn’t have been purged,” someone else amidst the crowd of people shouted.

 

             “I’m going to miss you so much Anna-banana,” and I choked on sobs as Josephine looked at me with impossibly light blue eyes. Her eyes were glacial. I pulled my best friend of fifteen years into a tight hug and smoothed her red tresses. “This can’t even be real, this shouldn’t even be happening, you can’t go,” she murmured into my shoulder and I could’ve cared less if my dress was damp with her sullenness.

            

             “At least … you won’t be alone,” I looked up to meet the eyes of the gorgeous dark boy who’d been listening to music moments before. He’d been entranced in his own world of sound and now he was going to die along with me. What a way to start your morning … to have it cut short so abruptly.

 

             “Sorry to break up the pity party but it’s time for you to go…are you Annabelle Tate?”

 

             I nodded dumbly at the sharp voice ringing through the cavernous room and looked into brown eyes and a face composed of sharp angles. I saw the glinting silver badge on the breast pocket of this man addressing me and I put it all together.

 

             In the wake of us sobbing, the mass swell of students coming to my aide and safety—to pull me from the tide, two hulking men in uniform had come to escort me. I was roughly pulled away and my friends screamed, my brother shouting, “No, that’s my sister” repeatedly. Professor Bingham’s eyes tightened and she looked away. I felt my messenger bag slipping down my arm as the guards’ hands tightened around my thin wrists. I was sure they would bruise: all mottled and purple.

 

             “Let her go!” Miles shrieked, his honey brown eyes flashing in pure defiance. He tried to wrench me away from the guards but had earned a quick knee to the groin. I screamed and watched as he crumpled, pure hatred plastered over his face. Miles—ever my fighter and the defiant one out of us Tate children—I would miss him so much. We locked eyes and he could sense my fear, I knew he could.

 

             “Dear god did you have to insist on being so violent with my student? I’ll have you know that he has every right to react the way he did!”

 

             Professor Bingham’s voice was acidic and the words were spat out like bitter venom. The guards made no move to even help my brother; they just regarded her with emotionless eyes.

 

             “He became brash and we reacted to it the way we were trained Mrs. Bingham,” one of them responded and his hand tightened reflexively on my shoulder. I wanted to punch him in his face.

 

             My eyes burned with malice— it angered me to know they had such power—such sway over us.

 

             The guards wasted no time in pushing me out of the door but not before my gaze flitted over to Collin. He could say a lot in a gaze and I read his expression clearly. I was sure there was some semblance of a feeling there for me too. I would never get to find out now though.

            

             “Can I at least see my family?” I’d asked once I’d been shoved out of the classroom like some common criminal. That’s how I’d felt—like I’d been wrongly persecuted for something I’d never done. It was if they were going to say I was charged for beheading a man or stealing bread from the Pavilion. Except I had done none of those things, I didn’t even know which portion of the Aptitude Exam I had failed. The guards deliberately ignored my question and remained completely impassive. I blew out air angrily and gritted my teeth. I felt like I was ready to burst with white hot anger flooding the pit of my stomach. There was heat emanating from every pore in my body. My hands shook with a tremor. I could still feel their massive palms digging into my shoulders.  

 

             “Can’t I at least bring my stuff home? Or could I just find out what I had failed? This isn’t even freaking fair! Stop digging your damn hand into my shoulder!” I wailed, resorting to what I knew to be complete childishness. But it really wasn’t fair, what gave them the right to dictate to Colonists if they did or did not live? What gave them the right to pull the strings of your existence as they saw fit?

 

             “That information’s classified, we can’t reveal that to you,” one of them answered robotically. He had sandy hair but that’s all I could see when I blinked back the veil of tears flooding my vision. I was crying so much that my face was sore. There were students pressing their faces against the window and then I was finally outside of the massive building. Smog and the occasional overhead whirring of a mechanized airship passed us overhead. There were people teeming past me and I got more than the occasional curious glance. One of those airships lowered itself, sputtering smog and other pollutants that stained the air a dull gray. The guards stopped abruptly, their hands slipping from my shoulders.

 

             “You are to remain silent and if you try to escape you will be shot on sight, do you understand?” The sandy haired guard looked at me pointedly as he roared over the loud hum of the reverberating engine. I nodded mutely and allowed them to help me into the airship. The latch of the door closed with a slow hiss and I placed my bag gingerly on the ground. I saw the dark haired boy and four other kids huddled on a metal bench across from me. We looked at each other solemnly, smiled weakly and said nothing to each other.

 

             There wasn’t much to say, no pleasantries to exchange and no light conversation to make. We’d have to face our deaths with something akin to bravery, if bravery meant showing no emotion. I thought of my dad and his beard peppered with gray hairs, a mark of his age. He was still stalwart and resilient for his age though, the wear didn’t show in his body.

 

             “I saw you this morning right?” The dark boy whose head was wreathed by neat dreadlocks spoke quietly from his corner of the airship. I’d been looking out the window wistfully, my fingers digging half moon marks into my palms. Part of me had wondered how my parents had told Ellie … Ellie … she would be crushed. My parents would probably be inconsolable with grief once they saw the names of the Purged listed on the holo-screen.

 

             Every colonist would be bombarded with images of our solemn faces as we ascended the podium. They would watch us as the light and fire burning in our eyes dulled to stark white. I started to wonder why this even was necessary—labeling us and assorting us based on our personal strengths and weaknesses. This was a forced process of natural selection.

 

             “I’m Langston. What’s your name?” He asked me and I snapped out of my reverie, responding numbly.

 

             “Annabelle. Annabelle Tate … and yeah you-you did see me this morning. Sorry I’m just kind of caught up in my thoughts,” I admitted sheepishly and I bit my lip.

 

             “That’s totally understandable, I feel you on that. This whole thing’s just surreal and upsetting, really damn upsetting. It’s one thing when you’re spared from it all these years and it’s another thing entirely when it stares you in the face,” he smiled sadly then and it didn’t reach his rich brown eyes. He really was handsome and I thought to myself that in another time and place I would’ve fallen for him. I would’ve walked alongside him to our classes and listened to his music with him.

 

             “Yeah that’s just putting it lightly really … where did you live?”

 

             “Province 3,” my eyes widened and he smirked at that. He was donning a simple gray sweatshirt with some abstract art splotched across the front and distressed jeans with converses. His outfit was practical, stylish and yet it looked like something that could easily have been exchanges. I know he was someone that could actually afford to buy his own clothing though and the thought made me bristle with a hint of jealousy.

 

             “Trust me you’re not the first person to be totally shocked about that. We’re not all uppity and stuck thinking our own crap smells like roses. Some of us are tolerable,” he chuckled heartily and we shared an easy laugh at that.

 

             “What about you? Where did you live before this whole thing?”

 

             “I’m from Province 6,” I pressed on when he regarded me with his full attention, his legs uncrossed and his knees facing me. There were faint scars on his palms and I winced trying not to think about what could’ve cut into his hands so deeply.

 

             “My dad’s a fighting instructor and my mother is a painter.”

 

             “Free from the purging … you have any siblings?”

 

             “Two, my twin brother Miles and my eight year old sister Ellie,” I didn’t want to mention how tight-knit we were as a family or how my mother and father had insisted that we practice our talents diligently. I didn’t want to mention how my father had spent hours at the Pavilion scouring the stores for a set of paintbrushes and acrylics just so I could paint in my room. How my brother had encouraged me to draw with pastels even when I’d been made fun of for being “too soft” by other children when I was younger.  Those things went unsaid so instead I just murmured how they were wonderful, had been wonderful and we fell into an easy companionable conversation.

 

             “I have a younger brother; Apollo … reminds me a lot of your little sis. He’s always asking a lot of questions and one answer is never enough for him. He’ll ask you why the sky is blue through the ceiling of the cave and he’ll expect you to have five different answers for him. Sometimes I have to be like, ‘Apollo some things really do have a simple answer.’ I’ll miss him a lot … I understand … trust me,” his eyes burned something fierce and fiery then.

 

             The airship gave a sudden lurch and we simultaneously roved our eyes over to the circular windows. Outside there were shafts of sunlight beams piercing through the air. Dust motes languidly floated in and out of the light and gave the Banished Lands a haunted and eerie quality. We were deep in a system of cave. I saw rocks jutting out of the cave floor and little organisms scuttled about to the safety of boulders. In the center of the vastness of these cave was a stone dais rooted deep into the rock.

 

             Dread filled me and I felt my body go cold. My hands tingled and I worried the hem of my dress between my fingers. I hadn’t noticed that Langston’s scarred hands had found mine until the security guards known as Enforcers addresses us in their cool voices. For the first time I got a good look at the four other Purged—there was a mousy girl with brown hair and freckles defiantly boring holes into one of the Enforcers’ eyes. Next to her were twin boys with soft green eyes and an unruly mop of brown curls. The sixth person was a raven haired girl who had the shrewd look of someone capable and able. When she flexed her arms I could see the muscles rippling beneath her shirt. Her able body reminded me of Miles and I shuddered, worrying my lip.

 

             Langston’s hand gave me a quick squeeze.

 

             “You sure you’re alright there, Annabelle?” His eyes softened in concern as we were instructed to line up. We awkwardly shuffled together, our body heat mingling in the dank air smelling permanently of smoke and copper.

 

             “It’s our judgment day—I just made a new friend and now I’m going to die with him,” I could feel Langston’s eyes behind me as I made my way slowly out of the clunky airship. I smiled sadly and regarded him once to see his reaction, he smiled sadly and his hand never left mine. I was grateful for the small amount of comfort. Around the dais was a manmade lowered pit of flattened earth. This was where hundreds, perhaps thousands of people gathered to watch us publically be purged.

 

             “Keep it moving girl,” and I felt myself spitting in the guard’s face, my expression livid. My eyes burned and my hands tingled in that sensation of old familiar rage burning within me. My whole body flooded with heat. The rifle in the guard’s hand—this was sandy-haired from my school—whipped across my face. I gritted my teeth and blinked away the white spots that flooded my vision. Dad had taught me to be tougher than that—Miles had taught me to be more resilient than to cry out. I may have lacked certain qualities that were desirable for a Colonist: physical strength, a hunger for ambition and fierce loyalty but I could still retain my individuality.

 

             They could not take away my individuality. It was when we’d made the slow procession up to the raised dais, circling the ringed pit of earth that I caught a glimpse of my friends. They were seated among their respected families and part of me wanted to cry out to get their attention but the blood dripping down the side of my head stopped me. I didn’t want to be too insolent and earn another nasty gash on my forehead.

 

             The Enforcers were the police of our Colony. They were what my mother used to refer to as police from her old world. Even if you didn’t get purged, it didn’t mean you were free to murder or steal or rape someone. You were punished in what was considered to be a justifiable manner, sent to the Prison within the Banished Lands. Even now I could see the ominous stone building rising like a spiral monolith towards the cave ceiling. The Prison was where they kept you caged like an animal, clipped your wings and watched the light flicker and then become wan. If you stole medicine, they threw you in there and the same went for your being accused for murder or some other heinous crime. They didn’t care if you were of the Elite, living in the prestigious epicenter known as Province 3; everyone was punished the same way.

 

             Soon we were all lined up on the raised stone dais. My bones ached and I winced as the smarting pain of my injury reminded me of my brashness. A bit of Miles and my dad lingered in my system. Ellie was more like our mother, obedient and sweet, without a single rebellious bone rattling in the cage of her body. I thought of my family now and wondered if they could see me and the heat built up like a torrent of fire rising in my chest. I wanted to break free. I wanted to stop being so oppressed. I thought back to the man whose lips had been split two quarters ago, purged because of his being a rebel. They’d slit a knife across his mouth.

 

             The raven haired girl twined a silver object in her hands and I saw her lips moving but I couldn’t hear the words coming out of her mouth. When a shaft of sunlight caught the object I noticed it was an old relic from decades past. Mom had said that people who worshipped a God had sometimes kept these relics in their home. There was a man nailed by his hands and feet to a cross. I could see that oxidization hadn’t been kind to the once copper object. Still for this nameless girl it was her one central tie to her sense of self. I had to admire her tenacity. We didn’t have use for religions or worshipping Gods in the Colony—it was a useless thing according to the Enforcers and the Elite.

 

             “Let them lower themselves to their knees,” an odd lilting accent floated through the massive system of caves. I turned and my ears rung with sound as the pistol whipped across my face again. This time I felt the blood sliding down my throat, I tasted pennies and salt in my mouth. On tremulous legs I kneeled, my body wavering before one of the Enforcer’s hands dug into my shoulder blade, forcing me to lower my head. I was subjugated and it made something shatter away in my body. A dark trench coat swam into my vision and I looked up into the sharp gray eyes of a man who was both loathed and feared: The Liberator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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