Isolon (Chapter 1)
I only scavenge at the Hole after dark. I take no risks, not with my baby brother waiting for me.
Tonight, the Hole is quiet when I arrive. Only two other Sweepers have dirty, canvas bags slung over their shoulders and are picking through rubbish in search of a tin of creamed corn or string beans. The air is ripe with rotting fruit and mouldy cheese—promises of a good haul—which is why it should be busier here. My taut muscles scream that something’s wrong, but the thought of facing my starving brother in the morning forces me on.
I readjust my filthy, knit cap, make sure my hair is tucked in, then stick an aluminium micro light between my teeth. Sweeping used to twist my guts with anxiety, and while it’s still not something I look forward to, after two years I’m at least proficient. And hey, I’m still alive.
I bend over and dig into the freshest-looking trash pile. A plug-in lamp, complete with an intact bulb, I shove aside in favor of a flashlight missing its glass. You can never have enough of these coveted, battery-operated lights in Isolon. Electricity is a past luxury. The trick is to find enough usable batteries to trade and keep.
Two dented cans of peas and a mystery jar of something orange I shove in my bag then take two steps to the left to begin again. Every few seconds I stop and glance around; a self-protection habit I learned the hard way.
The humid, night air coats my skin and has what I call ‘air-disturbance.’ New, pungent smells that mean Avalon—the sky city directly above us—had dumped their refuse earlier in the day which makes evenings like this the best for sweeping before everything becomes picked over or rotten. But few venture out at night to sweep because it could cost you your life. For me and others like me, sweeping with less competition means I have a better chance at finding the unopened tins of food that sympathetic Avalonites threw into the trash for us down here.
A few feet to my right I spot the fuzzy brown ear of a stuffed animal with both its eyes intact. In less than a minute I unearth it, shake it free of most of the dirt and crap sticking to it, and push it in my bag for Lake. Maybe he’ll give up his tattered old bear.
Nearby, the two other Sweepers are joined by someone else. I can tell who it is by the limp and intimidating voice. It’s Slate. I don’t like him.
Slate isn’t technically a Sweeper, although I suppose he gets his food and supplies from the Hole too. He’s the leader of the Nights, an underground community who think it’s their business to protect the Hole from the rest of Isolon. Despite my apprehension, I focus on scavenging for at least one more meal and something to trade before I let myself go home to my little brother. I thumb the scar above my right eyebrow, then put my head down and keep picking. If you mind your own business at the Hole you’re more likely to go home with all your limbs attached.
Sounds of an argument erupt from the little group, which isn’t uncommon at the Hole, but I can tell they aren’t arguing about food or grunge to trade. I catch the words ‘contest’ and ‘Avalon’ and I know they’re talking about the competition Avalon puts on every five years where the prize is a new life in the beautiful sky city. But then I hear the word ‘culling,’ and I almost run home. I dig faster and unearth a plate with a small chip I can trade. Another tin of veggies or two and I can be on my way.
I’m toeing the dirt off something metallic, when I notice an eerie silence. In a fraction of a second, I drop my bag, grab the dagger I keep strapped to my thigh and swing around. Slate’s hair shines silvery in the beam of my micro light.
“Well, who do we have here.” He picks his way through the rubble with more grace than a spider, and I marvel at his silence, especially with a bad leg.
My jaw aches from holding the micro light in my mouth but I keep the beam trained on him, knowing he’s unable to see me. If only I had been more aware. I’d stupidly allowed my attention to wander, a mistake I almost paid for with my life once before.
“What’s your name, boy?” Slate shields his eyes and squints. I keep my eyes on his other hand, the one twitching at his side like he might grab a weapon any second. “Shadows got your tongue?” He steps closer but I wave my dagger at him. I know how to use it, even if I still want to hurl at the sight of blood.
My eyes flick from his twitchy hand to his feet. The shift of his weight from his bad leg to his good one is slight but I see it, and brace myself. Quick as a silverfish, his arm swings up. His solid forearm hits my wrist in an attempt to knock the dagger out of my hand. But my grip is iron. With my other hand, I grab a two inch blade from its sheath on my wrist and slash downwards. I feel the blade connect with soft tissue. He cries out and stumbles back. I grab my bag and run. No one cuts Slate and lives.
After several minutes of panicked running, weaving between crumbling apartment buildings and jumping over broken fences, I duck into an alley. I sheath my blades, cut the light, then pull off my cap and let my hair loose. No one expects a girl to be sweeping, especially at night when the Shadows are out stalking their next victims. But it’s not the Shadows I fear, it’s the Cullers. Population control cops who arrive in Isolon every morning and return to Avalon before dark when they’ve filled their quota. They’re the reason my little brother Lake and I are surviving alone.
I exit the alley and keep my pace at a brisk walk, eager to make it home before Slate discovers who I really am.