Chapter 1: Rumi 1 RUMI
I rubbed my eyes against the brightness of the AutoTram station and ran through the doctor’s words again. This is going to be your year.
My backpack slumped to the floor between my feet, and I nudged it upright. I straightened my shoulders too. Overhead, pigeons hopped from beam to beam of the station’s arched glass ceiling. Their shadows rippled through streams of late-afternoon light.
It’s going to be a shining year, the doctor had said. A coming-out-of-darkness year.
My hand slid into my jacket pocket and brushed against the pill bottle that lived there. I tapped one blue pill onto my palm, then another, and tossed them both to the back of my throat.
Right, I thought. The world will be fresh and new. The colors bright. My smile honest.
But I still have to make it through today.
The station was full but not crowded. Corporate commuters mostly, heading home from work. The tidy click of shoes on marble tile. A few other students in the green uniforms of my school sat scattered around the station, but I pretended not to see them. Instead, I watched the pigeons. Watched and waited for a repeat in their code. No matter how long I stared, I couldn’t find any. It was all perfectly random. Perfectly real.
Except, of course, for the pigeon crap that had once made them such a nuisance. None of that anywhere.
“Are you feeling all right, Mr. Sabzwari?” The voice came through my specs. It was a nurse from the Clinic, the one who always sounded a bit too concerned.
I glanced around the station. I didn’t know where the cameras were, but I knew the nurse could see me. Nurses didn’t like it when you sat and stared into space for too long. They assumed you must be thinking bad thoughts.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m doing fine. Just heading home for dinner with my family.”
“I know, Mr. Sabzwari,” the nurse said. “Rough day?”
I nodded toward one of the station’s spec screens, which had been playing archival footage of terror attacks on a loop for the past half hour. The hantavirus victims of New Stockholm. The wildfires in the oil fields of Alaska. The twisted metal of a BulletRail train smoldering in desert sand. A memorial of sorts for today, the ten-year anniversary of the crash.
“Rough day, yeah,” I said.
The nurse was silent for a moment, probably checking my vitals. Or maybe he just didn’t know what to say. My mother had been on that BulletRail train ten years ago, called away on an urgent trip for work. But her train had never made its destination. A faction of Las Oscuras had derailed it in the Northern Desert, killing everyone on board.
“Your vitals look good, Mr. Sabzwari,” the nurse said. “I know today’s not been easy, but you’re almost on the other side of it. Remember what the doctor said this afternoon—this is going to be your year. Right?”
My cheeks flushed. “Right,” I said. “Thanks.”
My train arrived, and I boarded the half-full car along with a handful of others. A holographic girl stood across from me, smiling, adverts tracing her body like tattoos. Her eyes met mine, and I smiled back. It felt somehow rude not to. But then my specs twitched with a new message, and I looked away. Probably from Wen, I thought. Some manic little note telling me to stop obsessing over stuff I couldn’t control and just live my life goddammit. But no. It was from a guy at school who’d barely said ten words to me in all my life.
We’re all rooting for you, mate, it said. Don’t let today get you down!
The train rocked gently, and I closed my eyes. Everyone at school knew what had happened. How I’d taken too many citizen pills—an accident, though not everyone believed me. Now I had a regimen of Clinic appointments and a team of doctors assigned to look after me. I’d returned to school last week from my stay at the Clinic to find that my reputation had changed—from straightforward, straight-A Rumi Sabzwari to something altogether more confusing. All eyes were on me now, all the time. And I hated the attention.
Thanks, I wrote back. That really means a lot.
School that day had been predictably awful, full of special in memoriam activities and teachers pausing in the halls, giving me that smile adults give to let you know they’re one of the good ones, that if it were up to them, all the bad things that had happened in your life would melt away. The only normal bit had been at lunch rotation with Wen. I’d seen him sitting alone by the large dining hall windows, a mug of black coffee in front of him, and he’d motioned me over.
“You on a diet or something?” he’d said, nodding at my empty lunch tray as I sat down.
I shrugged. “I could ask the same of you.”
Wen smiled and raised his mug. “Breakfast of champions. And lunch of champions. And afternoon snack of… you know.” From his jacket pocket he took a pill bottle, carefully tapped four pink pills into his palm, and swallowed them with a gulp of coffee. I looked away. I used to give him a hard time for downing pills like candy. But neither of us brought it up anymore.
From across the dining hall, two fourth-years—one big and baby-faced, the other small—made eye contact with Wen and walked to our table. I recognized them but didn’t know their names.
“Gentlemen,” Wen said as they sat down.
“What a shit show,” the shorter guy said. He unwrapped a SoyChewy bar and took a bite. “I can’t believe we still do this whole memoriam bullshit every year. You know, they’ve talked about the crash in every single one of my goddam classes. I mean, get over it already.”
I looked down.
Wen took a long sip of coffee. “Maybe you should get over it. I mean, seriously—it’s one lousy day.” He shot a glance in my direction, his fingers drumming on his coffee mug. “Oh, by the way,” he said. “I’m just about out of dexies. Think you guys could get me some more?”
The two guys looked at each other. “Awfully bold, bringing that up here,” the shorter one said. He ate the rest of his SoyChewy bar in two large bites and crumpled the wrapper.
Wen laughed. “I’ve never been in trouble a day of my life. You think dextroamphetamines are what’s gonna nail me?”
The bigger guy shook his head. “Not all of us have famous parents protecting our asses,” he said. “You want to keep this thing going, you better learn to be discreet, all right? And don’t let your friend here get ahold of them. It’s bad press.”
My cheeks turned hot.
“Yeah, yeah,” Wen said.
The two guys stood to leave. “We’re still on for tonight?” the short one said.
Wen looked at me and smiled. “You bet we’re on.”
The bigger guy tapped two knocks on the table, and then both of them walked away.
Wen glanced over his shoulder as they left. “Man, fuck those guys,” he said. “I get that people are tired of all the phoniness. Like, which of these school admins stays up all night crying about their second cousin’s boss who died in the crash that day? But seriously. Have some respect.”
I nodded, picking at a hangnail on the side of my finger.
“What’s happening tonight?” I asked.
Wen took another long sip of coffee and smiled. “Oh, nothing that concerns you. Wouldn’t want to pull you away from your evening with Daddy Dearest.”
The grass twinkled a soft blue green on my walk home from the AutoTram station. Each house in my neighborhood looked like a painting. Windows glowed warmly. Walkways bloomed. Stately trees arched their limbs over perfect, peaceful gardens. How much of it was real? I had no idea. The last time I’d seen the world without the filter of my specs, I was too young to remember. Were the houses real but the colors fake? Was the grass real but not the trees? Were the people moving through their nightly routines in the lit windows of the houses really there, or was it all part of some algorithm intended to make me feel as safe as possible? The unreality of it all had started getting to me lately. It reeked of nostalgia for life before the Breach. Life before the walls.
The night air had that familiar smell to it, of dust and metal, and it formed a pit in my stomach as I paused in front of a white-trimmed town house with ivy climbing the front portico. My house. I pushed through the front gate and climbed the steps. The front door unbolted at the touch of my fingerprints. In the privacy antechamber, a scanner confirmed my residence and the security latch on my specs unlocked. I hung my specs on my wall hook, next to Baba’s thin wire frames. Father’s hook was empty.
“Baba?” I called as I stepped from the antechamber into the house. “Father?”
The warm smells of my grandfather’s cooking filled the air—ginger, garlic, saffron, mint.
The living room was dark, but light spilled from the kitchen, casting a long beam across the wide Persian rug. On the mantel, the glow illuminated Father’s display of artifacts from before the Breach: the wooden chess piece inlaid with ivory, the hand-painted vase, the iron rod twisted from the blaze of a bomb. Beside this collection stood a photograph of my mother, with golden eyes and long black hair.
“Father?” I called again.
A shadow stepped into the beam of light, and I turned to see Baba standing in the kitchen doorway, smiling. His linen shirt hugged the fullness of his belly. His beard was neatly combed. This past year, his hair seemed to have gotten whiter, and his shoulders seemed more fragile, more sloped. But the deep brown of his eyes still glittered with his smile.
“Rumi, child,” he said. “You’re home early!”
With a hitch in his steps, he walked toward me and pulled me into a hug. He smelled of spiced tea and camphor, and I held on for longer than usual. His hugs felt like medicine.
“Come, sit,” he said. “I’m preparing your favorite.”
I followed him to the kitchen and watched from the table as he poured hot water over a pot of Kashmiri chai—the kind his mother used to brew in South Pakistan, where he was born. I’d been taking tea with Baba since I was six years old, when he moved in with us after my mother’s death. It was our ritual, our balm against the world.
“Salt or sugar?” Baba asked.
He smiled and poured my tea. “Ah, child, one day I shall convince you of the superiority of our salty Kashmiri chai….” He dropped two sugar cubes and a splash of milk into my cup and brought it to the table. Then he returned to the vegetables frying on the stove.
My hands wrapped around the steaming cup. “Will Father be joining us tonight?” I asked.
“Of course, child!” Baba said. “It’s the anniversary. He wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
I took a sip of warm, milky tea. “It’s just… I noticed his specs weren’t hanging with yours. I thought maybe he needed to work or something.”
Baba paused for a moment. He set down his wooden spoon and turned to look at me. “Your father busies himself to hold his feelings at bay. Since he was a boy, he’s done this. Do be patient with him tonight. As the good poet says, our grief is still glistening.”
I nodded solemnly. Glistening, I thought. Like an open wound.
My first Clinic appointment had been just a few weeks earlier, a memory so vivid it hurt. I remembered sitting silently by Father’s side, listening to him tell the doctors the story of how he came home late from work that night, saw the light on in my room, knocked to no answer.
“I lost his mother ten years ago,” Father had said. “I can’t lose my son, too.”
Someone else might have cried as they said this. But not my father.
Baba turned back to the frying vegetables. “You appear to have made it through the school day mostly unscathed,” he said. “Was it as bad as you feared?”
I gave my best smile. “Worse,” I said. “My lit teacher had this brilliant idea to pair our class with students from other Upper Cities. She said it’d be good for us to have a chance to talk through our memories of the day of the crash.” Anchorage, Johannesburg, Murmansk, New Granada—the cities my teacher had chosen weren’t random. Each had been the victim of a major terrorist attack within my lifetime. “An act of remembrance, my teacher called it.”
Baba’s smile poorly masked his concern. “And who did you pair with?”
“Some girl from Rotterdam,” I said. “She was nice.”
I pictured the girl, a holograph in a chair. She was younger than me, short and sturdy with a soft, round face. A heart-shaped necklace lay flat against her red school uniform.
“Hi,” I’d said.
“Hey,” she’d said.
“This is… weird.”
The corner of her lip turned up in a smile. “Tell me about it,” she said, her palms rubbing her knees. “So… Rumi from St. Iago, right? What’s it like there—is it nice?”
“It’s fine, I guess. Probably a lot like… Where’d you say you were from, Rotterdam?”
She nodded. “I bet you have the same boring spec overlays we have here.”
I smiled. “Let’s see… Do you have a Mirror District?”
“Check,” she said.
“A central stadium?”
She looked away. “You bet.” The light caught her hair, like light sometimes did in old photographs. It made me want to reach out and touch her, to know she was real.
“Do you work?” she asked.
I nodded. “At this little all-night diner. It’s fine.”
“Same,” she said. “They’ve got me working concessions at this multiplex. It’s the whole dead-parent thing, I think. Give the sad kid a work assignment, keep her mind off the gaping hole in her life.” She took the heart-shaped pendant between her finger and thumb and slid it absently up and down the chain.
“Who’d you lose?” I asked.
“My dad,” she said. “What about you?”
“My mom, in the crash ten years ago.”
“Mine was last year.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
She looked at me then. “How long until it starts feeling okay?”
I’d shrugged. “Ask me in ten more years.”
At the kitchen table, I sipped my tea. When I heard Father come into the privacy antechamber, I stood from my chair. He stepped into the kitchen wearing his official blue Governance uniform, the one decorated with many honors and reserved for official appearances. Behind his specs, his eyes looked tired.
He took off his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair.
“Your shoes, Rumi,” he said.
I looked down at my feet. Of course. I’d forgotten to take off my shoes at the front door. I started to untie them, but across the kitchen, Baba clicked his tongue. “For shame, Arman,” he said to Father. “This is the first thing you say to your son, today of all days?”
Father raised his hands. “You’re right, you’re right. I shouldn’t have. The day has me on edge, is all. Dredging up old memories.”
Father’s day had been as awful as mine, I knew. The press conference a few hours earlier—at which Father had been asked an indecent number of questions about my “incident”—was why he was dressed so formally tonight.
Baba scooped steaming biryani into a serving bowl, and I stood to help him bring it to the table. “Your father always forgets his manners under stress,” Baba said conspiratorially.
Father unbuttoned the collar of his shirt and rolled up his shirtsleeves. “Enough whispering, you two,” he said. “Consider me duly reprimanded.”
As Baba heaped fluffy golden rice onto our plates, I watched the expression on Father’s face shift ever so slightly. I knew what was coming next.
“Your appointment today,” he said. “Did it go well?”
I nodded and glanced at Baba. “They reduced my meds again. I’m almost back down to a standard citizen’s dosage. The doctors say I’m really starting to show progress.”
“That is good, child. So good to hear,” Baba said.
A message came through Father’s specs just then, but he unlatched them and set them down on the table. “Yes, Rumi,” he said. “It’s wonderful that you’re feeling better.”
My hands tightened around the warm mug, and I forced a smile.
“Thanks,” I said.
Father nodded matter-of-factly, as if to punctuate the conversation. He didn’t like talking about my appointments. I sometimes wondered if he wished I didn’t have to go to them at all.
We continued eating in silence. Outside the kitchen window, the sky turned purple with the coming night. In the distance, a signal tower blinked yellow, informing us that the borders of our city, St. Iago, were secure. Not secure enough to switch to green, though. I’d never seen the light turn green. Only yellow, orange, red, and ultraviolet. The varied colors of alarm.
When I’d finished my second helping of biryani, Father cleared his throat and pushed his own plate aside. Then he took a small box from his jacket pocket and set it on the table. Written on top in Father’s bold handwriting was my name. The strong, careful lettering.
“Now, I know the doctors said not to make a big deal of the anniversary this year,” he said. “But I wanted to do something….”
I picked up the little box. It felt light in my hands.
“Open it,” Father said. It came out as more of a command than a request.
I unclasped the box and hinged the lid open. Inside were tiny yellow beads—eight, to be exact—forming a single molecule.
“Do you remember when we used to build these together?” Father asked.
For my tenth birthday, Father had given me a model chemistry set. I’d pretended to love the gift because Father had been so sad at the time—even though by then my mother had been gone for years. He and I had spent so many evenings at this very table connecting ceramic beads. I’d shape black beads of carbon into dinosaurs, make long mazes of oxygen chains. And Father would never correct me or tell me what to do. He’d just sit across the table from me building his own molecules. Hydrochloric acid. Penthrite. Propane.
“Your mother was always much better at this,” he’d say.
Father took the delicate yellow structure out of the box and turned it over in his fingers. “Do you remember what this molecule is?”
I held out my hand, and Father passed the ring of beads to me. “It’s sulfur,” I said.
His face creased into a tired smile. “The first molecule we ever built together. I found your old chemistry set in the attic the other day, but the connectors had cracked—and it was an elementary set anyhow. So I got you a new one. I know you’re beyond these models in your classes now, but I wanted to replace it anyway. It’s in your room, waiting for you.”
I set the sulfur molecule back in the box and traced the edge of the box with my finger.
“Thank you, Father,” I said.
He shifted forward in his seat and rested his elbows on the table. “You know, I was thinking—it’s about time to start visiting universities, no? I thought next month we could plan a trip, just the two of us.” The hint of a smile flashed across his face. He loved to talk about this sort of thing—about everything the future held for me. “Are you still thinking of applying to schools on the continent, or will you be aiming farther afield?”
I took a sip of tea and held the liquid in my mouth for a moment before answering. “Do you think we could hold off till I have a chance to talk it over with my doctors?” I looked down at my plate as I said this. I already knew the Clinic’s opinion on the matter. They thought that university visits would be highly beneficial for me, a way to keep my mind focused on the future. But every time I thought about that future, my brain went into a panic. The future claimed to have a place for me, but I knew deep down that I wouldn’t fit into it. No matter how I tried to bend and twist myself, I just wouldn’t fit.
“Of course,” Father said. “Whatever your doctors think best.”
“Maybe you could pick up some university intel on your travels for work, though,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “Or is that stuff top secret?”
Father wiped his mouth with a napkin and placed his specs back over his eyes. “About that. I have some unfortunate news. I’m needed abroad tomorrow—intercity Governance business. I’m scheduled to leave tonight, right after dinner.”
My skin tingled as he said this. Our family had always made a point of being together on the evening of the anniversary. It had become something of a family tradition. Father and Baba would tell stories about my mother—things about her I’d never gotten to know for myself. We’d pull out old photo albums, read old letters.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Father said. “But it’s a routine diplomatic visit. Nothing to worry about. If everything goes smoothly, I’ll be home by dinner tomorrow. I’m headed to Upper City Cuzco. You remember Cuzco? All the Old World cathedrals…”
I looked away. This Cuzco bit was almost certainly a lie. But I’d learned a long time ago not to ask too many questions about his work outside our city.
“Don’t you care?” I said. “Don’t you care about today?”
Father stared at me in disbelief. It was a cruel thing to say, but I didn’t take it back.
Baba placed his hand on mine. “Rumi, child,” he said. “You mustn’t say such things. You cannot imagine the depths of your father’s love for you, or for your mother.”
I looked down at the gift box still open on the table in front of me. “Funny way of showing it,” I said.
Father sighed. “You have a wonderful life, Rumi, full of so much promise. But you need to understand that not everything is about you. The sooner you learn this, the better.”
My face felt hot with all the things I knew I couldn’t say. “Yes, Father,” I said. The gift box stared back at me. The yellow beads felt like an indictment. Look at the child you once were, they seemed to say. What happened to that child?
Father pushed back his chair and stood. “Thank you for the delicious meal, Baba Joon.” He bent down to kiss Baba’s cheek, and Baba clutched Father’s hand in both of his.
“Travel safely, my son,” he said.
Father nodded and pulled his hand away. “I’ll see you both tomorrow,” he said. Then he walked from the kitchen and out the front door. Somewhere on the street outside our house, a car door opened and closed, and the car drove away.
“I should probably go too,” I said to Baba, my throat tight with unspoken words. “To work, I mean. The doctors prescribed me more hours today.” This wasn’t true, of course. The doctors knew how important it was for me to spend this night at home with Father and Baba. But with Father gone, the thought of staying home suddenly felt pathetic, childish.
Baba nodded. “Your doctors know what is best,” he said. “But if you’ll spare your grandfather just one more moment…” He stood and went to the living room. When he came back, he held in his hands an Old World photo album, its green leather cover worn with use. From the earliest days of my Citizen Training, I’d been taught that any connection to my family’s history and traditions was unpatriotic. To be a good citizen of Upper City meant to leave behind the ugly baggage of the world that came before. But this line of thinking never convinced Baba, who stubbornly insisted on sharing stories of his life before the walls.
“Did I ever tell you the story of how our family came to live in Upper City St. Iago?” Baba asked.
I swallowed hard, wanting to leave. Knowing I should stay.
“It was your father, right?”
Baba’s eyes twinkled. “I was only a child when our family received the invitation, and I too assumed, at first, that my father had earned us our citizenship. His work to bring peace to our country gave him a high Deservingness Quotient, to be sure.” He opened the photo album to a picture of a middle-aged woman with dark, piercing eyes. “But, in fact, it was my mother who’d granted us entry. She’d been a renowned geneticist before the Hot Wars, specializing in crops that could grow in the most austere conditions. With St. Iago seeking to define itself as a post-Breach hub for the biotech industry, our city’s Governance had of course eagerly welcomed her into the walls.”
He turned the album to another page and suddenly, gazing back at me, were my own mother’s golden, smiling eyes. She wore her medical scrubs and coat, her Governance ID clipped to her lapel. A few dark strands of hair fell around her face. She was stunningly beautiful. “In this way,” Baba continued, “my mother was not unlike yours. They both took it as their life’s work to breathe beauty into the world’s desolation.”
I stared at the photograph of my mother. I had so few memories of her, but I knew her legacy well: a brilliant young chemist who’d helped pioneer the cocktail of drugs now prescribed to every citizen of every Upper City. They were the drugs intended to keep us all sane inside the cities’ walls, the same tiny blue citizen pills I’d taken the night I almost died.
“Today is the day your mother died,” Baba said. “She saw suffering in those around her and used her talents to ease their pain. I see so much of her in you. I think to myself and marvel at what you will do in your life, at who you will become.”
My throat tightened. “I’m not sure I see things that way, Baba.”
Baba nodded and took a long sip of tea. “Your life is your own, Rumi. Remember that. It is no one’s but your own. Now, as the good poet says—go if you must. Move across the night sky with those nameless lights!”