Chapter 1: Chapter 1

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 859
Comments: 5




“ . . . almost immediately after beginning my derivation

of dynamics, I recognized that the field would rest on

three inviolable laws. The most fundamental of these was

the idea that there is no such thing as a free ride. . . .”

Adam Luther Dempster, Foundations of Imperium


Chapter One

I prepare breakfast in the dark, setting the stove on low, the coffee maker to drip. Bay’s breathing orients me, and I can see it all in my mind. The small room with gray walls, its windows covered by drapes. The dynamics books scattered on the carpet. My brother asleep in his bed. Even for the Wharf, it’s sparse. Out of pity, the woman down the hall gave us her old projector when she replaced hers, but after a few weeks I sold it. Got less than a month’s salary in exchange, but I didn’t care. It’s hard to focus when you can press a button and be entertained.

I check the cleats of my diving shoes, pressing my palms hard against the metal spikes to detect instability. Before Bay’s accident, when my brother was still the best diver in the Wharf, we would examine each other’s suits for flaws every morning. That was the most serious I’ve seen Bay—golden hair tied back, brow furrowed, green eyes picking over every inch of my rubber suit. Now I check my suit by feel, in the dark, with the smell of my simmering breakfast making my mouth water. When I’ve dressed and stretched and eaten, I set out a plate of beans and toast for Bay, pour milk into his coffee, and lean the knobby sticks he uses as crutches against his bed. Then I leave for work.

In the predawn light, the Wharf looks like a crooked finger extending into the sea. The road that runs from the lifts to the factories is nearly empty because Imperium staggers our work hours for efficiency. Divers and lift operators start at five. Factory hands at seven. Clerks and teachers and students at nine. Most kids my age will spend today preparing for final interviews, which we sixteen-year-olds have in a week, but I have to work because my parents have already been retired. Besides, I gave up on recruiting years ago.

I enjoy the calm while I walk, listening to the crash of the sea and the distant rumble of the Pit lifts. On mornings like this, as I pass dark storefronts and dirty apartment buildings, I wonder why Imperium didn’t abandon the Wharf after the War. Disposable income is too scarce here for the company to make much money. Imperium doesn’t even advertise to us anymore. Smog has corroded the road’s billboards; the projectors and suits they display have long gone out of style.

But of course I know the answer. That the cliffs surrounding the Wharf offer natural protection from the predators that live in the Pit. That the sea beyond the cliffs provides a low-cost method of energy generation and waste disposal. I had to explain all of this in my second interview, when I derived the algorithm Imperium uses to decide which cities it invests in and which it abandons. The question wasn’t too difficult, because Bay had been given a similar problem when he was twelve and, as always, had solved it outright. Back in those days, we both dreamed of acing recruiting and getting important jobs in the big cities, so as soon as Bay returned home he taught me his result. The algorithm simplifies to minimizing the squared cost required to cross a two-dimensional grid.

I find the rest of the divers gathered on a promontory overlooking the sea. As always, they ignore my arrival. I stand to the side while they talk about what the bounty will be like tonight. Apparently the last one ran out of wine before midnight and somebody punched a director. Bay would encourage me to socialize, but the other divers are older than me—well past their final interviews, some even nearing retirement—and I don’t have his talent for it. I feel more comfortable alone and silent than I do in conversation. This wasn’t always the case. My mother called me Sayer because as a child I was always trying to talk.

After fifteen minutes, the associate who runs our group shows up and starts barking orders. I’m assigned to clean one of the factories by myself, which prompts a bunch of spiteful glances. The other divers hate being worse than a kid. I know they’re all hoping I do poorly in recruiting and Imperium assigns me to work in a factory for the rest of my life. Given my interview performance, they could be in luck.

It was different when Bay was healthy. He was a better diver than all of us, but somehow that made him more likable. I think it was because his excellence was effortless. The divers know that I stay late on weekdays to practice my entries and add milliliters to my lung capacity. They know that I believe in dynamics, in Imperium’s dictums about hard work. I make them feel guilty when they cut out early or don’t come to the cliffs on weekends. But Bay used to saunter up thirty minutes late with his hair a mess and his suit half on, like he’d rolled out of bed and decided he wanted to try the most dangerous profession in the Wharf. Then he’d plunge from the cliffs and stay under for twenty minutes and clean two factories by himself, only to emerge with a huge laughing smile and a look in his eyes that said “How did I manage that?” Everything he did was disarming. . . . I love my brother and have tried very hard to be like him, but I cannot.

Because not everyone can be gifted like Bay. My mother taught me that. Whenever I was struggling to climb the cliffs or staring at a convoluted dynamics equation and Bay scampered past me or said the answer to the equation without writing anything down, she would smile at me in that helpless way of hers. That was our language, and I understood. Bay was the natural; I was the worker.

The associate waits for us to put on our masks before waving us off the cliff one by one. When it’s my turn to dive, I feel a familiar mix of anxiety and excitement. My spikes click against rock as I sprint forward and then leap into the air, pushing off hard with my left leg to make sure I clear the rocks below. For a few seconds I’m flying, falling, weightless. A whoop escapes me. I can’t help it. This is the second most fun thing I do.

My landing is expert. I straighten my back and arch my feet so that there’s only a brief pressure on my toes before my suit’s hydrophobic rubber slips me into Imperium’s cold western sea. I keep my arms pressed against my sides and descend to where the factories’ pipes wait like the trunks of massive elephants. The water here is murky and filled with garbage—torn neckties, discarded bottles, wadded food packaging. Once a week, turbines in the pipes suck up thousands of gallons of seawater. The water creates the electricity that spins the sewing wheels and lights the city and sweeps the Wharf’s refuse back out into the sea. We divers keep the pipes from getting clogged. I am happy for the work and know that this is the cheapest method of waste disposal, but sometimes I wish I could swim in a sea with clear water and sand that doesn’t look diseased.

I’m not efficient today. It takes me four dives to clean the first factory, and I average only twelve minutes under per dive—three fewer than normal. When the associate checks my progress during our lunch break, he looks surprised because I’m usually his most productive diver. If he were smarter, he would have noticed the pattern by now. That I always underperform before the bounties. Bay realized it just by glancing at my paystubs, and those weren’t even sorted by date. But it’s not a fair comparison. Bay knows I am more than a diver.

I’m preparing to reenter the water when a shout startles me. Along with the associate, I rush to the cliff’s edge and peer down at the sea, where a diver is swimming frantically through the surf. Behind him, ghost-white fins with long trailing tentacles slip through the waves.

Nettlefish. The memory is like a blow to my stomach. Bay taking one last dive after the day’s work was finished. Twisting and flipping through the rain. Staying under for over twenty minutes. None of us thought anything of it. It wouldn’t have surprised us if Bay hadn’t come up for an hour. This was the kid who had posted perfect recruiting scores without training a day in his life. Who everyone said was smart as a Dempster. We all thought he would be the Wharf’s first Runner.

Then that scream. Like a million needles piercing my skin as shining, invincible Bay clawed his way over the rocks with a nettlefish wrapped around his left calf. He managed to drag himself halfway up the cliff-face, but by the time I pried the tentacles from his leg the poison had taken root. The last time my brother walked was during his trip to the hospital, where the doctor advised him to amputate his leg at the knee. If he didn’t, the poison would work through the rest of his body, eventually killing him. Bay refused. He would beat the poison, he said. He would walk again. Three years later, he’s still on crutches. The doctors think it’s a miracle he’s alive. I know better.

It wasn’t until Bay and I got home from the hospital that I fully understood what had happened. In the chaos, I hadn’t considered why the nettlefish had stung Bay and not another diver. Then I remembered: nettlefish pincers can’t pierce rubber. Bay’s suit must have had a hole. Had I missed it that morning? My fourth interview was the following day and I was preoccupied to say the least, so such an oversight was possible. On the other hand, maybe the suit ripped when Bay hit the water. That happens. But usually the diver notices and surfaces immediately.

I have thought through the events of that day many times, but I can’t reach a conclusion. All I know is that I feel guilty. That’s why I played dumb in my fifth recruiting interview, even though I understood dynamics better than the vice presidents Imperium sent to quiz me. That’s why I collapsed after ten minutes in my sixth interview—a test of endurance—even though my lungs are the strongest in the Wharf. Because I could never abandon my brother. My brother who has never acknowledged my role in his accident, nor that he is crippled.

After the chased diver scrambles to safety and we scare away the nettlefish with stones, the associate calls off work for the day. The weekly power generation will start in less than an hour, and today’s a half day anyway because of the bounty. I feel anxious as I walk back to my apartment complex, my mind buzzing like it always does on the four days a year that Imperium celebrates its wealth. Is tonight the night? Will our parents finally be here? The alternative makes me cold. Bay and I living in the Wharf for the rest of our lives. Waiting for retirement like everyone else. As I watch workers trudge from lunch back to their factory cubicles, I try not to think of my recruiting scores posted outside the Board House.

The anxiety stays with me until I hear my brother’s voice around a bend of the road. “Shelly, if you can hear me in there, I swear if you haven’t memorized the three laws of dynamics by our next session I’m going to hurl you into the Pit.” He must sense me coming, because his tone changes abruptly. “Also, have I ever told you about how Sayer saved a Runner from a pack of night wolves? Yes, I agree he’s handsome, but please don’t get too excited.”

I’m chuckling as I round the corner and see Bay and Shelly sitting at a table alongside the road. Bay pretends not to notice me, reclining with his bad left leg propped on a chair, while Shelly doesn’t look like she’s at any risk of becoming overexcited. Her face is buried in the pages of a dynamics book, and she’s not moving.

“Is she asleep?” I say.

Bay whirls as if surprised. “Sayer!” he says. “What a shock. But, yes, I’m afraid Shelly has left us for the remainder of this session. I think she’s resting up for the bounty tonight.” He smiles broadly at me, and I laugh. That smile gets me every time—winning, handsome, as helplessly genuine as the boy behind it. Most of my brother—his strong jaw, green eyes, and golden hair—come from our father, but his smile is our mother’s. At school, I once overheard one of his admirers saying that he had taken the best features of our parents, leaving me the common bits. It’s true. I have my mother’s brown hair, dark eyes, and fair skin. My father’s gravity and determination.

“How does it feel today?” I say, pointing at Bay’s leg, which is wrapped in thick bandages.

“Oh, that?” says Bay. “Grand, grand! I’ve been doing exercises and—watch this.” He hefts himself from his chair and balances on his right leg. His shoeless left foot dangles above the ground and slowly descends, but as soon as his toes scrape the asphalt he jerks it upward. “I think it’s improving, Sayer,” he says. “I think we could still do it.” His voice is strained, but there’s a determination in his eyes. “Become Runners together.”

This is our lie. That everything that has happened since our parents’ retirement six years ago—Bay’s injury, my poor recruiting scores, the crimes I commit during the bounties—won’t affect the dream we had as children. To join the Runners, the highest paid employees of Imperium, the elite citizens who brave the dangers of the Pit. If anyone else told me something so ridiculous, I would challenge it immediately. I’m not the kind of person who lies to protect people’s feelings. But Bay needs me to believe him, and so I do.

“I think so too, Bay,” I say, turning away from him.

Luckily, Shelly chooses this moment to wake up, yawn, and ask Bay what the point of recruiting is anyway. This prompts one of my brother’s eclectic monologues in which he explains that back when Imperium was just a company, not a nation, unemployment and inequality had led to the war for resources that created the Pit, and that recruiting helps Imperium allocate its workforce efficiently so that it doesn’t have the same problems. He then links this to the idea that, when you really think about it, recruiting is another manifestation of the first law of dynamics because there’s no such thing as a free ride but if the workforce is allocated correctly then in a sense the population does minimum work for its collective ride. I can tell from the way Shelly’s head nods at all the wrong pauses that she doesn’t understand anything he’s saying, but she’s so taken in by his enthusiasm she’d probably be asking him for a dance at the bounty tonight if he weren’t crippled.

“I think you motivated her,” I say after Shelly leaves clutching a dynamics book.

“Yeah?” says Bay. When he looks to me, his face has darkened. Only I am allowed to see him like this. I know he’s thinking of recruiting, of the promise his life held before his final interview. I fumble for the words to cheer him up, but I can’t think of anything and we fall into silence. He stays distant until a rumble stirs us.

“We should go,” he says, reaching for his crutches. “The Runners will be here soon. Are you dressed?”

I think of the expensive suit I’m wearing under my diver’s outfit. “Yeah. Do you have my shoes and hair stuff?”

He tosses me a bag from the table. “I still can’t imagine you dancing at some fancy city bounty. Mom would love that.”

I sling the bag over my shoulder. “It’d be more fun with you.”

Bay loops his arm around me, and we set off toward the Pit lifts. “One day, little brother,” he says.

The houses along the road become more prosperous as we move away from the sea. This is where the associates, vice presidents, and directors assigned to the Wharf live, and they can afford brick and stone houses, some even with small yards. Before his retirement, my father dreamed of buying such a home for my mother. He had one picked out—two stories, built from beautiful white stone, with blue-shuttered windows that looked out onto a garden of red and yellow roses. But of course he never had the money. Both of my parents spent their entire careers as factory workers. That’s one bad thing about recruiting: if you are given a low-ranking job, promotion is often not possible no matter how hard you work. For thirty years, my father started his shift as a mechanic an hour early and ended it an hour late, but his position was never advanced. Whenever Bay asked him if that upset him, he would rub his large, stubbled jaw and say no. Because then he might never have been assigned to fix my mother’s sewing wheel.

I miss my parents, but I am glad Imperium retired them together. It’s hard for me to remember them apart. Every memory of one has the other in the background. Singing, laughing, pulling a funny face. I wonder what they look like now that they have the comfort of wealth. I picture my mother kneeling in a garden, my father with his clothes finally free of grease. Will they keep their promise to return for Bay and me? It is against Imperium’s laws to do so. Bay and I have not worked enough to deserve leisure. But I often find myself thinking of the day when the Runners took them away, through the Pit to the Retirement Communities in the north. My mother leaning in close as I cried and smiling with all her radiance. “I’ll come back for you, Sayer,” she whispered. “Look for me at the bounties.” I was ten, old enough to remember how she squeezed my hand and kissed my brow before stepping onto the lifts.

My fingers have twisted the drawstring of my bag into a knot. I let it go and feel blood drain from my fingertips. Bay tries to distract me by doing tricks on his crutches, but I can’t stop trembling. Twenty-four bounties ago, three months after my mother and father were retired, I spent my entire savings on a handful of yellow roses and sprinted to the lifts at dawn even though it was raining. I thought my parents would be the first up and that I would rush into their arms the way I had in my dreams. Instead, I watched Runners unpack freeze-dried meals for six hours. When Bay finally found me, my clothes were soaked through and the rain had ruined the roses. That was the first chance my parents had to keep their promise. This is the last. After my final interview, I will become a permanent employee of Imperium. Most likely I will stay a diver, but perhaps I will become an associate or a shopkeeper or a factory worker. Regardless, I will sign a contract that can only be broken by retirement. Or until I am caught and executed like all thieves.

Along with clusters of workers and students hoping to have shirts, photographs, and business cards signed by their favorite Runners, Bay and I enter a space about the size of a factory where the clifftop has been blasted flat. The gravel shakes from the strain of the lifts’ motors, and the rumbling and clanking of the great chains is so loud it’s hard to hear what the lift operators are shouting. I spot Shelly’s father, the director Douglas Michael Rubin, waiting in a crisp blue suit to greet the Runners.

Then the crowd cheers, and suddenly Runners are rising like statues from the treetops that hide the Pit. Their complicated skintight suits show every curve of their muscles, which makes me wonder what they can do with the blades and bows hanging from their belts and backs. Most of them have graduated from expensive academies where they train in dynamics and war, so they’re probably adept with all weapons.

Douglas Rubin hurries forward to greet our guests and sort out logistics. The Runners nod and respond brusquely as they unload supplies for the bounty tonight—casks of wine, salted meats, fresh flour to bake into cakes—and then they approach the waiting fans. Bay and I let the others surge forward to have their items signed while we watch, as always, for the visitors the Runners bring from the larger cities. Today there’s a wiry man with slicked-back hair and a tall woman with a large brown-and-white dog. No Mom. No Dad.

“Not today, I guess,” says Bay, staring at the place where our parents should be. “I’ll see you in the morning, then, Sayer.”

I’m too angry to reply, so I just stride back the way we came, pretending that I’m going home. But as soon as I’m out of sight of the lifts, I double back through the lot of the Board House, find the cliffs, and start to climb. My hands and feet slip easily into remembered holds, and my anger helps me rise. Why would our parents lie to us? It would have been fine to let retirement end our family, but why pretend otherwise? It’s not like my mother and father. They are honest people.

When I reach the top of the cliffs, I walk quickly to my usual launching point—a slab of rock that juts into the space above the Pit. Bay and I used to climb here as children so that we could gaze out at Imperium. On many afternoons like this one, when the sun was nothing but a bright spot in the smog, my brother would step to the edge of the rock and indicate all the places we would travel together as Runners. The great eastern mountains. The rich cities. The desert in the south. During those moments, Imperium’s vastness was an invitation. If we worked hard, we would see it all.

I have to wipe my eyes before securing my bag against my back, kneeling to get a hold on the cliff-face, and beginning my descent into the Pit.



Submitted: June 01, 2019

© Copyright 2020 Ladder. All rights reserved.


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Add Your Comments:



Thought this was a really good first chapter. Don't know if it's really young adult - kind of more like sci fi - but digging it nonetheless.

Sat, June 1st, 2019 8:51pm


This first chapter is both extremely well written and compelling. Left me eager to read the rest.

Sun, June 2nd, 2019 11:18pm


Really interesting set up in this first chapter... hope to read more!

Mon, June 3rd, 2019 12:21am


I really enjoyed this first chapter. I found the whole concept of imperium to be really topical given the debate we’re having today about the fairness of our economy and increasing corporate power. Looking forward to reading more.

Mon, June 3rd, 2019 2:23am

Adham D.G

This honestly is a perfect first chapter. The charchters are well rounded and fleshed out, the world is interesting and well built, and your writing style sucks the reader into the story. If you continue to write like this, it'll easily get published. Looking foward to reading more

Sat, July 6th, 2019 2:10am

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