33, Chapter 2

Life in the Commune is easy. An alarming, trumpeting horn blasts you awake, you put on a pair of grey cargo pants and a black tee shirt, walk through the Commune to the mess hall, and then pick your lot. Every day.

Horn, dress, mess, lots.

Horn, dress, mess, lots.

Horn, dress, mess, lots.

Today, I decide to add an extra step. Look.

Our pods are outfitted with the basic things you need to consider it a home: bed, closet, sink, mirror, shower, and toilet. Most days, I walk past the mirror without a second thought. But today is a rare day that I decided to look in the mirror, because my birthday is a few days away and I want to study myself for any change my 24th year might bring.

Birthdays don’t matter much here, except that it means you’re one year closer to your Haven. From birthdays six to 39, as we don’t move to the Commune until we’re six, it’s just another day of the week. But on your 40th birthday, you finally get to leave this place and ascend above it all to the only thing everyone really cares about: your Haven.

I’m still a decade and a half away from my Haven, so my birthday will just be another Tuesday to me. But last week I finally crested the charts for the top 10 point earners in the Commune. I look down at my wizywig, the electronic tablet that’s more precious that my own life, and smile at my face staring back at me on the Top Point Earner roster. With 679,862 points, I sit comfortably at #10. Lazily, I scroll through the entire Commune’s roster and see the usual faces – the Top 10, who I know very well; the 20 or so chunk of men and strong women who get a lot of labor-intensive lots; and then the hundreds of newbies, fresh to the Commune from the Creche, and near-Oldies, who just don’t care anymore.

After folding my wizy up and sliding it into one of my many side pockets, I look at my face again in the mirror, searching for any change my new age brings. But all I see is mediocrity.

I am, in all accounts, average. Shorter than most, but not uselessly small. Limp brown hair pulled into a knot on the top of my head and and even darker brown eyes. Slightly oily complexion and olive-colored skin. To some, pretty; to others, I’m not.

Normal. Average. There.

In all, existing.

The extra few minutes I’ve taken put me behind my usual schedule and I realize the sun’s rays hit a different spot on my bed than usual when I leave. With one last blank stare at my reflection, I huff, leave my pod, and start the same day I’d been living for 16 years.

Leaving later brings a different crop of Fellows to my side as I join the mass exodus to the mess hall. No one notices a change in the routine but me. I see different face than what I’m used to and there’s a faint whistle that’s floating through the air. Mostly everyone’s shoulders slump over so much that “down” is the only comfortable way their heads look, meaning that faces are never even really seen. I see the faces, though. I don’t walk with my head down. I made it a point to know everyone here so I could figure out how best I can use them to get more points for my Haven.

We have no hierarchy of power; no way to distinguish us from each other except our looks and our thoughts, which usually remain relatively the same from person to person. While they’re all the same, most of the times, I feel different. There’s more inflection in my voice when I talk. More fire behind my eyes than theirs. The other Fellows don’t look at me when conversing, but through me. But I don’t mind. I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to earn as many points for my Haven as I can. I take a deep, satisfied breath in and marvel at the Commune around me.

Our homes are arranged in a rectangular neighborhood, six square blocks across and 10 blocks long. The buildings, known as Cubes, hold our individual homes; one room living spaces we tend to call pods. When you come to the Commune at age 6, you’re assigned one randomly, as everything else is done here. There are many more pods than Fellows, though, and the Cubes in rows H through J are completely uninhabited. I revel in our small world. As a whole, our society creates one being; one massive machine that keeps the world from spinning into oblivion. It’s much better than the Old World’s alternative.

One thousand years ago, war escalated to a catastrophic scale. Three-fourths of the 8.1 billion people on Earth perished from starvation, chemical warfare, or other terrible things I had no interest in knowing. When that happened, the first Rector, Rector Prime, took the fate of the world into his own hands. His aim, uniting the whole of humanity under one umbrella of power,  came so late in the fighting that there were barely 300,000 people left on earth. Even with so small of a population, power wasn’t easy for him to seize. His idea of a self-sustaining commune was seen as idiotic, idealistic, and small. The Old World had communes; they even had Communism, but every additional try failed faster that the former. The world’s population was content to keep fighting, until every last person lay bloody in the dirt, over trusting a quiet man from rural America. He didn’t stay quiet for long though. Rector Prime established the Commune, my Commune, and began creating a world far better than anywhere else the burning, charred earth had at the time.

In a few months time, most of those who refused his idea before had come to love the life he offered. No one could deny that life was better there than in scavenging in smoldering ash or six feet below. And it’s only gotten better in the past millennia.

Here, everyone has enough to eat. Everyone has a roof over their head. Everyone has a purpose and a reason to get up in the morning. We’re all safe and liked and capable. And with the world on the mend, thanks to the Commune’s Refurbishment Team, the Old World isn’t smoldering ash anymore. It’s where we retire to after we’ve put in our 33 years of work.

From the moment you enter the Commune, it’s an innate desire to work as hard as you can for your Haven. Your name – your number, really – is your entire being in the Commune. It holds your productivity in lots, your health, your skills and certifications, but most of all, your points for your haven. Everything you do here revolves around earning more points. Getting to the mess hall early, 5 points. Attending another Fellow’s Celebration Night, 30 points. Lots have point values, too. Most of the easy ones like Creche and Textiles are lower points, but Fellows who pull Metal and Lumber lots earn up to 15 points an hour.

I’ve worked years to get to the Top 10. Not only does hitting the Top 10 give you an automatic bonus every day on the points earned, but once you hit the Top 10, it’s hard to drop out. Points just… come to Fellows more easily in the Top 10. I’ve finally crested that hill, and I’m not leaving my place anytime soon.

The points we earn can be used for anything in the Haven, from the architecture to the decor to what’s inside. Every year on your birthday, a representative from the Commune sits you down and shows you all the things you can pick for your Haven. I know I won’t sleep well tonight in anticipation for my meeting a few days from now. I already know how tonight will go, though; it’ll be the same night as every night. I leave my lot, grab dinner at the mess hall, return to my pod, shower, jump in bed, and stare up at my progress bar.

On the ceiling of every pod, a digital progress bar tallies the points of the day. Whether you earn or lose points, you see every little thing from your day add or subtract from your overall total. Satisfaction swells in me every night as the points roll in and I see my progress bar inch closer to more milestones.

It’s my constant incentive for living the same life, day in and day out. I’m good at it. I thrive in monotony. In my last year at the Creche, I really got serious about acing the Assessment to enter the Commune, and I didn’t change that attitude since. That attitude hasn’t made me many friends, but I don’t need friends for a better Haven. I need points.

My walk to the mess hall is nearly over – I see it in the distance on my right. As my eyes rove over the hundreds of facing milling around me, my heart pangs. I push the feeling away, ashamed. I don’t need friends. No one needs friends here. No one wants them, or has them. It’s not wrong that I live my life alone. But sometimes I am lonely. I look around myself, like I’m doing right now, and feel completely isolated, even though there are scores of Fellows around me. In the deepest part of my heart and the furthest corner of my mind, I know I’m different than everyone here. But difference isn’t rewarded here; it’s punished. Consent, not dissent, earns points.

When I get in these moods, I default back to the very few things I know for sure about myself. Core values that are so precious to me. Eight simple statements I created for myself to become the Fellow I am now. The Fellow the Commune lauds. The Fellow who’s the Number 10 Point Earner.

I am the Commune.

I am safe.

I am liked.

I am capable.

I matter.

I have a purpose.

I want my Haven.

I am not special.

I’m so wrapped up in my thoughts, and used to my routine of walking straight to the mess hall, that I don’t see the Fellow in front of me stooped down tying his shoe and I walk right over him. With a hard smack, I tumble to the ground, chin hitting the dirt and accidentally biting my tongue. The whistling stops and a concerned voice floats out of the same mouth.

“Oh gosh, I’m so sorry! Here, let me help you,” my obstacle’s voice says. I look up to meet smiling, greenish-blue eyes. His eyes go wide a little when my face meets his, but his mouth break into an incandescent smile after a few seconds. He offers his hand again.

“Are you hurt?” He asks as he clasps my forearm and pulls me to my feet. I try to ignore him as I wipe off the dust and dirt now clinging to my knees and elbows.

“No, it’s my fault. I’m fine. Thanks, though,” I respond coldly, trying not to make eye contact and carry on. The mess hall is only yards away. However, he catches and holds my hand as I continued and my body snaps back to face him. His rough hands are connected to thick forearms and bulging shoulders that barely fit in his black v-neck. He’s still smiling at me, which is weird, because no one ever smiles unless they’re earning more points for their Haven. I do my best to calm my heart at his sharp jawline and the sprinkle of freckles over his face.

“Your chin is bleeding. Let me help,” he says, going into his pocket for who knows what.

“I said I’m fine.” I choke out, halfway trying to convince him and halfway trying to convince myself. My chin actually had started to throb in pain, and what used to be my tongue is now a swollen hunk of meat in my mouth. More than that, though, a dull pain pulses at the back of my head, getting incrementally worse by the second. I may have to visit the Med Tent after my lot today.

“I didn’t hurt you this much last time,” he says under his breath with a smile on his face.

“What did you say?” I question, making sure I heard him right.

Before he can respond, a force pushes the two of us forward. The nearest Praer must have seen the interaction and, not wanting us to cause a traffic jam, is trying to get us back on our way. I follow the movement without question; I’ve been trying to distance myself from the red-haired, green-eyed, freckled mess that tripped me.

“If this affects my Haven,” I think, “This kid has a lot to answer for.”

I like routine. I like status quo. I don’t like making waves.

While I keep my eyes forward on our march to the mess hall, I can still feel him beside me, a little less giving of his mobility than I but still moving forward. Out of my peripherals, I glance for a fraction of a second and see him still smiling at me. He begins to whistle a beautiful tune again. His eyes don’t leave my face.

I force myself to hide a smile and push any thought about him out of my head. That doesn’t stop my heart, though, and I know I’m in trouble.