Outside there is only death. Wren had learned these words almost twenty years ago, as part of a nursery rhyme. Hunkered down in the passenger seat of the crawler, waiting to set out on his first assignment, it was all he could think. He felt small within the bulky white suit, each breath coming heavy through the mask’s filter. Reentry would mean a quarantine lasting more than a week. So far, that at least had worked; there was no record of contamination within Hub.
When the last set of doors slid open and the crawler passed through, Wren only stared without a word. He blinked at the sun until his eyes stung and began to water. Wren turned, then, to gape at the clouds. They billowed upward, dwarfing those in the museum exhibits, putting to shame the clouds in his head. Below, level with the crawler, there was just a vast, green expanse of thickets that rose and stretched about Hub. It was beautiful. Wren had to keep reminding himself that it was fatal, too.
The landscape moved along in silence for almost two hours, without a word between Wren and the driver. They passed abandoned cars and structures punctured by vines, as they navigated around dormant warheads, deep craters, and crippled, grinning signs. In the distance, a dark building loomed over the ruins, still intact, like the last bottle in a sea of glass. With each moment it seemed to grow, until the crawler pulled off the fractured highway and rumbled to a stop at the structure’s entrance.
The forward canopy snapped open and the two men climbed out, letting themselves down over the tall wheels. Wren held back as the driver approached the doors and keyed in the entry code, sending a signal to Hub. It was the only communication left outside their dome–just that request lighting up on a display panel somewhere back home.
As they waited for the Hub technicians to verify entry, Wren felt the terror all around him, creeping through the pale film of his suit. It was like knocking on a door two hundred miles away. What if the filtration on their masks broke down while they waited, as it had for the old man? Wren glanced at the driver. He stared placidly ahead, carrying only a latched tablet. Glass and fabric–that was all that protected them from the air outside. How could he be so calm?
Wren almost dropped his case when the steel doors unfastened themselves, peeling back to allow entry to the decontamination chamber. They stepped inside, and the driver tapped the lock, sealing the entrance behind them. Wren could see nothing through the mist as it pooled around their bodies, wiping them clean.
Once the second set of doors pulled back, and they entered the lobby, Wren stood silent, surveying the building’s floor. Piles of random objects clogged the hallway, nearly meeting his waist where he stood.
“Your contract,” the driver said, his voice distorted through the mask. He unlatched the imprint tablet and handed it over.
“Take off your gloves. Press here, and here, to verify that you’ve arrived and been let in,” the driver continued, gesturing as he spoke.
Wren managed only a nod in response, pushing his thumb against the lines that displayed his name and the words “Delivered.” The driver grunted and turned, pressing the lock once again. Wren watched the doors as they swallowed the man. He waited, and listened as the crawler sputtered to life outside the building and trundled away. After a moment, he turned and fell to his knees. For the first time in his life, Wren was completely alone.
The tower had been built during the war. Each building employed a series of ventilation systems, backed by separate fail safes. When the city died, and power failed, the structure fell back on solar energy to keep the air inside clean. Wren had to repeat this to himself several times before he could take off his mask. “You are safe here, Wren,” he said to himself as he fidgeted with the seal. Even so, as he set the white mask on the ground, he expected his lungs to fill and burst, to leave him drowning on the floor. When nothing happened, he took a deep breath and began to look around.
The tower extended twenty floors upward. In the final month before his departure, Wren had studied the blueprints at the Academy each night. Each floor measured about five thousand square feet, and had been packed with items brought in by the scavenger crews. Outside, the walls were covered by black solar panels, and each window had been reinforced with several layers of bulletproof glass.
Wren sat in the hallway, staring at the closest stack of things. They lay in pieces, in fragments spaced apart, as though the objects had forged the path themselves. The scavengers had been careless. And yet, how could he fault them? They had spent most of their time outside the building, where the threat of pierced clothing meant contamination, and a slow, wasting path to death. Tidiness was not their concern; it was his.
He sighed and stood, bringing his case to the empty room by the entryway. For the long year to come, Wren had been issued seven days of clothing to be cleaned by hand. Each garment was identical to the last: pale blue, with long sleeves and four stripes printed on the breast. He had also been given a stiff mat and a thin set of sheets, which he unrolled and laid out on the floor as his bed.
Wren took the hallway to the left, searching for the store room. The first transport was due in three months, but he had been assured a six month supply cache was already in place. It didn’t take him long to find it. The room was filled with jugs of water, cases of broth, and twenty crates of High Nutrition Sustenance. HNS was dry, bitter, and difficult to chew, but there was no threat of contamination, and it lasted almost indefinitely.
They had left a separate supply of water for bathing, along with a few jugs of soap, and several hundred small packets of disinfectant. In the room next door, he found a small bathroom with two dubious looking toilets set against the wall. He lifted the lid of one and looked in. There was no bowl, just a long, black drop below. Wren straightened up and walked back to the store room, opening a packet of HNS. He chewed slowly, trying to keep the bar from touching his tongue.
After he ate, Wren set out for the stairwell. With the tower’s remaining energy spent on the entrance and vents, the elevators were useless. Wren had to brace the door with his shoulder and press with all his weight to get in. The hinges groaned with age, echoing into the black distance above. There were no windows in the stairway, just old lights left along the wall like dead eyes. He gripped the handrail and climbed the first set in the dark.
The second floor was laid out the same as the first: clothing and bits of broken machinery covered the floor, shoved aside into rooms empty of anything except more piles. Near his feet a stuffed doll with red, curling braids lay ripped at the shoulder. He waded across the room, stooping down to examine a scarf, and then a small stone carving–pale, transparent, a short man with a plump belly. Wren placed each item he examined back among the heaps, tapping his hip idly, memorizing approximate positions and compositions, making minor calculations and estimates in his head.
As he stepped among these artifacts of the past–upturned tables and chairs, broken vases and cracked, ceramic bowls–a thrill swept through him, overpowering the fear he’d felt before. Wren had spent his life from the age of ten studying items he had only seen in photos, or behind glass. Wandering among the piles, he was mesmerized by it all, picking up an old watch or rusted necklace to feel the weight of it in his palm, pressed between his fingers. None of these things would ever be his, and yet–for this year–each one of them was.
Wren climbed six more floors before the dark began to grow. In Hub, there was always light. Another thing to get used to, he thought: living by the sun. Careful not to fall, he made his way down the stairs slowly, gripping the rail.
Each floor would have to be organized on its own, and Wren calculated almost forty thousand items altogether. To meet the deadline he would have to sort at least two floors each month. Wren paused as he stepped back into the main hall, surveying the room, and began to laugh. The sound startled him, crawling along the steel walls and spreading about his feet. He gripped his arms and stared out the tall windows of the first floor. Beyond the crumpled buildings and fractured highways, there seemed to be nothing but a dark, vast silence stretching out before him.
When the first quarterly transport was due, three months later, it was either a day late, or Wren had marked the calendar wrong. He waited in agony, avoiding his work–restless, prowling the floors, and peering through the great windows at the verdant landscape below. Clouds bellowed and broke, until they were swallowed by the darkness. He returned to his room in a sour mood. Had they forgotten him?
As a student, Wren had isolated himself with his studies, but now he longed for Hub–yearned to see another face. He wanted to hear speech, to know there was someone else alive in the world beside him. Wren turned over on the hard mat, begging for sleep to take him.
His dreams the next morning were broken by a low, puffing thunder. Wren blinked, then tore off his sheets and scampered to the entrance of the building. His heart skipped and hammered as he watched the crawler idle out front. He pressed his face to the glass, waiting for someone to emerge. After a moment, the driver dismounted, and opened the hollow at the back of the crawler.
Wren backed away, giddy, waiting for the man to approach and enter the codes. As the second set of doors pulled back, groaning, Wren rushed forward, then stopped and backed off a little, unsure of himself–shy. The driver peered at Wren through the white impasse of the mask.
“Your supplies…” the man said, trailing off, gesturing toward the crates he had wheeled in on a large dolly.
Wren blinked, and then nodded.
“Can you help me with them?” Wren asked.
The driver grunted in assent, and they shuffled over to the load. It was just as Wren should have expected: flats of water and soup, boxes of HNS. Hiding his disappointment, he reached up and grabbed a crate, then fell into step alongside the man, directing him to the store room as they went.
“How is it?” he blurted, once the boxes were on the floor. “Back at Hub. How is everything?”
The driver glanced over at him before raising his shoulders in indifference.
A look of pain crossed Wren’s face, and he turned to eye the soiled, battered shoes he wore.
“I just mean,” Wren continued, in a murmur, “if there’s any news I’d like to hear it.”
The driver sighed and took off his mask, setting it on the floor. Wren’s heart surged; three months of solitude made the man’s face a strange, beautiful sight. There was a kind look about him. Wren tried to smooth the mass of hair that fell in front of his own eyes, and glanced away.
“It must be hard,” the driver said, itching his neck where he’d removed the mask. “All alone out here, for as long as you are. The scavengers go out in groups, and only for a month at a time before they rotate. Do you ever wonder why that is?”
Wren grinned, surprised by the cadence of the driver’s voice. The labor caste wasn’t taught to speak like that.
“It’s always been like this,” Wren said. “And there aren’t many of us, just five at a time–one for each building. I replaced Sorter Kunin, when he–”
The driver interrupted Wren.
“Or maybe they just don’t trust you. A few of you alone for a year, with all of their things.”
Wren stood there for a moment, stunned as the driver walked back to the dolly. He dashed back, catching up as the man hefted another crate.
“I don’t understand,” Wren said. “What would we do but sort it?”
The driver gave him a strange look and chuckled. “What indeed.”
They carried the last of the crates in silence. Wren wanted to ask something else–anything–to begin another conversation, but he felt mute, unable to manage a single word. He found himself repeating his own words in his head, forgetting the man that still walked beside him. It was only as the driver stood at the doors, fidgeting with his mask, that Wren remembered his presence.
“I have to close you in, now,” the man said.
He paused, looking at Wren.
“You asked how things were,” he said, with half a smile. “They’re the same–bad for most of us.”
The driver hesitated, and then shrugged.
“But perhaps that will change,” he said.
Wren only nodded at first, then shook his head.
“Your name. I’ve forgotten to ask, again.”
The driver laughed, and Wren began to think his first impression of the man had been all wrong.
“Kai,” the driver said.
“I know your name,” Kai said, shaking his head and grinning as he secured his mask. “I’ll see you in three months.”
Wren stepped back as Kai entered the decontamination chamber, then watched, squinting through the windows as the crawler pulled away.
Wren had been born into the academic caste. When he was five, contact with his parents had been cut off and he had entered the Academy. At the age of ten, he had been chosen as Kunin’s successor. When Kunin wasn’t off for a year sorting, Wren spent his time with the old man learning the trade. It was an honor, but it had cost him contact with his peers. When the others gathered for sport in the atrium, or migrated to the commons to mingle, often trailing off to copulate, Wren would be the last one in the library, nose deep in a text. At the time, he had consoled himself with the notion that what he was doing meant something, and was greater than himself.
He couldn’t understand what the driver, Kai, had meant. There were regulations in place for his work, but they were no more strict than anything else in Hub. Everything has a reason: survival. That was the answer to every question in Hub.
Hub, as they learned as children, had been built as an experiment. It was a government project, an extension of the Mars Initiative, a trial for a giant dome on the red planet–self-sustaining, and sealed off from the environment, with an initial population of one thousand. When war came, and the germ spread across the country, Hub was the only population center left unaffected. The castes, the Academy, the enforcement sector–all of these were established at the same time. For each safe building beyond the dome, one sorter was designated, and replaced only at death. It was the sorter’s job to save the most important artifacts of humanity. When the items were retrieved, they were distributed between the upper castes. As each day passed in silence, and the nights stretched before him, Wren would remind himself of the honor of his task, like a lullaby, as he tried to fall asleep.
Even so, it seemed the floors rose endlessly above him, heavy with their things. Each day followed the same pattern: Wren sorted, and he ate–he defecated, and he slept. As the months swept by, he dreamed of the piles. They lay out in front of him in waves, writhing, no longer items, but people–naked and charred, reaching out at him, tearing at his face and trying to draw him in.
Sometimes, he dreamed of the old man. As Kunin spoke to Wren, he would begin to dissolve, crumbling at the mouth, becoming the things–the piles–his voice echoing in his head, “Never forget who we are, Wren.”
After the worst of the dreams, Wren would wake in a sweat, shivering. Unable to fall back asleep, he would get up and pace the floor by the windows, staring out into the darkness for hours on end.
When the second transport came, Wren worked quietly beside Kai, saying little as they carried the supplies. Once they finished, and the man was turning to go, Wren managed to say what had been weighing on him for months, in the silence.
“I’ve been thinking about what you told me, the last time you came,” Wren said, chewing on his lip as he spoke. “I don’t understand what you meant about the Academy not trusting me. About change.”
Kai laughed gently and knelt down, sifting through a pile of items sorted into the most valuable tier. Wren flinched as he touched them.
“Do you mean that?” he asked, looking up at Wren with a blank expression. “You might not like what I have to say.”
Wren nodded. He didn’t care what Kai said, really; he longed to hear the sound of another voice, to keep the man in his presence a while longer.
The driver gave a heavy sigh, and seemed to be considering something before he spoke.
“It starts with our history,” Kai said at last, meeting Wren’s eyes. “It’s what they don’t tell us that matters–not the war, or the germ–it’s what happens after all of that.”
Kai stood up and started walking among the piles as he spoke.
“All we have are approximations now. How long ago did this happen? Eighty years? One hundred? They don’t tell us. It’s passed down in whispers: How they formed the caste system in the name of survival, arguing that panic might cause a breach, and contaminate Hub. That we needed order; a structure to maintain the survival of our species. So our parents put their heads down. They worked. You and I? We were born into the life we were born into.
“But what good are all of these things here,” Kai asked, glancing back at Wren. “We have everything we need in Hub to survive without ever leaving the dome. How does any of this enable the survival of our species? We don’t use it. They put some of it in the public museums, true, but most of it goes on their walls. Tell me, Wren–what’s the point?”
“To preserve our culture,” Wren said, after a moment. “To know who we were.”
The other man gave a short laugh and scratched his forehead, looking away.
“How could you know all of this?” Wren asked. “There was nothing that I read–nothing like that at the Academy.”
Kai bit his lip.
“Your predecessor was a good man,” he said. “It was wrong what they did to him.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, very quietly.
“Wren, how many books have you come across while you were sorting?”
The other man had taken off his gloves, and traced the lines on his hand as he spoke.
“Hundreds,” Wren said, shaking his head. “I’ve made stacks on each floor. Books aren’t sorted into the tiers.”
Kai nodded, and began to pace.
“Auditors take note of the books, and go through each before they’re accepted into the libraries. Anything dangerous is incinerated.”
“Dangerous?” Wren asked.
“Theory, history. Certain works of fiction. The sort of work that made Kunin see how wrong everything is in Hub. Twelve years ago, he began to smuggle in books like that. I’m not sure how he got it past the quarantine, but he did. When he wasn’t on assignment, he began reaching out to sympathetic individuals, members of the other castes, distributing and copying the books. Last year he was caught.”
Wren shook his head, regretting having ever asked the man anything. He was nervous, confused.
“They took the other four sorters off assignment and brought them out here, to this building–his building. They made the others watch as they stripped Kunin naked and pushed him out into the open.”
“I don’t believe you,” Wren said, as something stirred in the pit of his chest. “He was–they told me that his clothing was pierced in transit, that it was an accident.”
Kai looked up and smiled, then turned away.
“I drove them,” he said after a minute.
There was a long silence, broken at last when Wren asked, “Why are you telling me all of this? I could turn you in.”
Kai laughed in a tired sort of way, and looked back to Wren.
“You could, when you return in six months,” he said. “The other sorters would, I know that. Even before what happened with Kunin, they would have.
“But you,” Kai went on, watching Wren with half a smile. “We don’t know about you.”
Wren shook his head. It was too much.
“What are you planning to do?” he asked.
“To continue where Kunin left off. Wren–you must realize that none of us know what else is out there. We are led to believe that the entire world is dead and poisoned beyond our walls. But how can that be true? The world is vast, and within Hub we are slaves to the caste.”
Kai’s voice seemed to burn as he spoke.
“If we were to overthrow that, to overturn the caste system, we could build more crawlers–we could go farther than just these towers. There must be others alive out there, beyond Hub. And we could go on equal footing. But first, we need books. We need to keep the words alive, to reach others.”
He stepped forward and gripped Wren’s shoulder.
“Wren, we could be free of all these useless things.”
At that, Wren swallowed and turned away.
“I can’t,” he said.
Kai smiled once more.
“Think about it,” he said, and began fitting on his gloves as he walked to the exit.
Wren opened his mouth, but said nothing. He watched as Kai put on his mask and punched the lock, stepping through the doors.
“What else is there for me to do,” Wren murmured at last, once the other man had gone. It felt like the world and everything he knew was slipping away, piece by piece.
The moment Kai left, Wren found his head swimming with questions. How did Kai organize with the others without being caught? How many of them were there? Was there truly hope of another place beyond Hub that wasn’t contaminated? Wren only grew more impatient with the questions as each day passed.
Soon, he began sorting through the stacks of books with a new purpose. He sought out history books and works of theory with new interest, no longer sorting them into the piles. His studies at Hub had only showed him small details, never the whole picture, and it had left the past of their species obscured.
Wren discovered anarchism and democracy, socialism and slavery. He read about the holocaust and the crusades, the Cold War and the Great War. He discovered an endless amount of religions, and with each, the wars waged in their name.
The more Wren read, the more divided his thoughts became. There was no war within Hub, no religion, and yet there was a class system every bit as rigid and precise as those abolished centuries before their time. Which was better? They were safe within Hub, so long as they played the role they were born into. Did it matter if the privileged had their pick of all these things? Wren couldn’t decide.
Most of all, he yearned for human contact. Often he spoke as though Kai was there, making arguments about the caste system and staging debates. Wren understood it was mad, but it didn’t matter; there was no one to hear, and his own voice echoing about was all the reason he needed.
By the time the third transport came, three months later, Wren had come to think of Kai as a friend. At last he could ask his questions, and have a real answer. Wren waited at the doors, unable to contain a grin. As they unfastened, and a figure appeared in the receding mist, Wren rushed forward, embracing the man.
There was a shuffle, then, and the man backed away, waving his arms. Wren’s heart seemed to stop; as he peered at the face behind the mask, he saw another man–one he didn’t recognize.
The man wouldn’t say what had happened to Kai.
Wren sat on the floor by the entrance until the man finished with the crates and left. As it pulled away, the sound of the crawler seemed so much smaller, and softer, than it had in his memory.
Wren climbed and sorted three more floors in the next month. Even then, he was behind. He had made new calculations, and at his pace, he would only be to the eighteenth floor when the auditor came. Still, all he could do was move through one item at a time. He clung to this as he worked, as though it was all that was left to keep him from sinking into darkness.
He rose each morning to leave a black mark on the calendar before climbing the stairs to the floor he had left off on. As Wren sorted through the piles, doubt began to take hold. He was unsure of himself. Everything he had been doing made so little sense. Who was he sorting for? And to what end? Wren lifted a necklace from one of the piles and watched as it glimmered and burned in the light.
What would these things do for the people that received them? Everything he sorted would hang from necks, on walls, like Kai had said–like trophies, like severed heads. Wren cried out and flung the necklace against the wall, watching as the gems shattered and flew from their chain, cascading about the room. After a moment he fell to his knees, scrabbling to preserve what he had broken, to collect all the pieces, feeling as though he had taken a life.
Wren began to doubt each decision he made. Why was one thing worth more than the other? He knew the method, of course–historical value, level of preservation, the materials used–but he was losing the point, and his judgment was failing. He would try to read, but wouldn’t be able to focus. Instead, at night, he would walk to the great glass windows and stare out into the void that lay beyond. Wren would watch the empty distant black, just letting his mind go for a moment. There, the days swung round, repeating themselves like a strip of film.
August 13th was Wren’s birthday. He marked it off the calendar, smiling a little. There was a jar of pitted, preserved cherries he had found among the piles. He had read about them in his time at the Academy, pouring over the images longer than he should have, memorizing their shape and texture, imagining their taste. They were extinct, and if somehow they were still preserved, they would fall into the highest tier. Wren took a breath and unscrewed the lid. He had lived through the motions a dozen times in his sleep. After a moment he dipped his fingers into the jar and stuffed one into his mouth.
His eyes softened, then shut tightly, and he spat the cherry onto the ground, gagging. Rot filled his mouth, and he sat down, his cheeks burning as he sobbed, rocking, cradling the jar.
Wren was nearly half way through the sixteenth floor when another vehicle came. He was just picking up a silver hand mirror, the glass shattered, when he heard the ragged churn of an engine in the distance. The mirror slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor. It didn’t make sense–the final transport had already come, and there was still a month left unmarked on the calendar. He dashed to the windows, frantically trying to place the vehicle that approached. Wren fled down the stairs, counting the floors as he vaulted a few steps at a time. Near the third floor he fell, wrenching his ankle and cursing, staggering up and limping the rest of the way.
In his room, Wren stood gaping at the calendar, staring at the empty page. It came over him slowly, the memory creeping up and settling around his throat like a noose: there were days, scattered throughout the long year, where he hadn’t marked the calendar. It would be the auditor’s vehicle, below.
As the doors of the building shuddered, creaking to life for the first time in several months, Wren’s knees gave out where he stood. He listened as the footsteps echoed through the building. Just one set, like cannon fire. Wren wondered if that was how his steps went as they paced around the building, unaware of themselves.
“Wren,” a voice called out. “Hello?”
The voice sounded his name once more, sharply. At that, the terror holding Wren in place broke, and he rose, sprinting from his room to the entrance, trying to ignore the pain in his ankle as he ran.
Turning the corner, he stumbled to a halt in front of a man he had never met, who eyed him with a look of distaste. He still wore the white suit, though he had taken off his mask.
Wren smiled a little and extended a sweaty palm. The man did not take it.
Instead, he turned away from Wren and began to stroll about the first floor, thumbing a noter as he walked.
“You’ve been on this job a year,” the man said, scrolling through a document. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” Wren responded, distracted by the pain in his ankle, and the blood that pounded through his head.
The man looked older than Wren. His hair was dark, worn slicked back over his head. Some sort of jelly, Wren thought–something found by another sorter. Auditors were part of the governing caste, and Wren realized how he must look to the man. He had seen himself through the shards of the hand mirror, but had made no note of it; Wren’s hair fell to his shoulders, tangled and clotted, his clothing torn and soiled. He hadn’t noticed the smell before, either.
Wren began to smooth his hair nervously, pulling it back over his head and draping it behind his ears, imitating the man. He opened his mouth to speak, but all the questions–everything he wanted to say–seemed to jam together and catch in his throat. Only a hoarse whisper escaped.
He closed his mouth and turned away, shuffling over and pretending to examine one of the tiles. It felt like the dreams he’d had where he sat alone, surrounded by books, only to discover he had forgotten how to read.
There was a sigh behind Wren as the auditor muttered something Wren couldn’t make out.
“You need to take me though the floors,” the man said very slowly, repeating himself. “Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Wren said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I haven’t had anyone to talk to in a very long time.”
Wren took a deep breath, and began.
They were halfway through the first floor when the auditor stopped him.
“How have you marked the sections?” he asked.
Wren halted and blinked at the man.
“When they come to take it, they need to know what to take, how to arrange it. You haven’t done that yet?”
“But I can show them,” Wren said, in a panic.
The auditor sighed and shook his head, making several notes.
“You’re supposed to have that ready. You remember that, right?”
Wren didn’t know what to say. Again, he was conscious of gaping at the man. Of course he knew that. But he hadn’t thought of it for months–it hadn’t been necessary. He would have done it at the end, after everything was sorted.
He swallowed, then, remembering that several floors were still untouched. Wren looked at the man, and began to stammer.
The auditor cut him off.
“You’ll have to do it before the collectors arrive,” he said, with a sigh.
Everything the auditor said seemed to come with a sigh. The man looked perpetually tired, and there were deep lines etched beneath his eyes that Wren hadn’t noticed before.
“This time, just make sure it’s ready,” the auditor continued, looking down at his noter. “Once they’re here, everything goes to make room for the next load.”
Wren nodded, and steadied himself against the wall.
They moved through the rest of the floors as Wren explained how each stack had been organized, or pointed out a treasure of note, showing the auditor why a painting had been set aside in the lower tiers due to a gash in one corner, or why a dark bottle had been left to the highest tier: whiskey, dating back to the 20th century. The auditor rarely spoke or responded to Wren’s comments, but his hands always moved across the noter.
When they reached the last floor sorted, the silence enveloped them. He had shown the auditor the final piles, lingering where he had left off, clinging on to each item as though it was the last foothold at the end of a long climb.
The auditor sighed once more as he looked about the room.
“The piles over there,” he said, gesturing, “why do they look like that. They haven’t been sorted?”
Wren eyed his feet. His toes protruded from the worn shoes, and his nails curled back into the flesh.
“There are three more floors above,” the auditor said. “How many are unsorted? All of them?”
Wren nodded. The man sighed, and noted something. That was his role–to sigh and note–just as Wren’s was to sort.
“You should show me.”
Wren felt dizzy, but nodded, and motioned ahead.
They walked slowly, climbing the stairs and standing a long while at the entrance to each floor. Wren watched as the auditor took his notes. He knew, then, that he had no control over what happened next. He had made his case–had put everything he could into his work, under the circumstances. It was up to the auditor, now.
On the final floor, Wren followed the man to one of the large windows. He watched as the auditor gazed out at the wounded landscape below. Buildings lay spread out across city, submerged in the overgrowth. Wren cast a miserable look at the sky where the clouds grew dark and gathered in the distance.
The auditor spoke without taking his eyes from the terrain below.
“If it was up to me, I would never come out here again,” the auditor said. “You can’t go a minute without a reminder of everything we’ve lost and will never have again.”
He turned, locking eyes with Wren. It made Wren shiver.
“It’s your first assignment, and we had to start you before you were ready. I’m giving you an extension–three months to tag and sort all that remains. Spending any more time out here, alone, is punishment enough. The Academy won’t have any questions until the review. They’ve got enough to worry about right now.”
“Thank you,” Wren stuttered, after a moment.
The auditor waved a dismissal.
“Just make sure everything is done this time. You won’t have a second chance.”
He paused, briefly eyeing Wren.
“Clean yourself up, too. You were left with supplies for hygiene. Use them.”
They descended slowly, in silence. Wren’s head pulsed and pounded, and his ankle cried out with each step.
It was only when they reached the first floor that Wren found his voice.
“Back home, at Hub,” he said. “What is it like?”
The man stopped, and turned to look at Wren. After a minute, he spoke.
“There was a terrorist cell causing problems earlier in the year–riling up the lower castes, poisoning the crops. But they were caught, and executed.”
The auditor paused for a long while, looking straight at Wren.
“One of the men was your driver. Did he ever speak to you?”
Wren quickly shook his head. The auditor sighed.
“No. Of course not. Just keep your mind on what you have left to do,” he said, nodding at the unsorted piles.
The auditor discussed several logistics before he left, telling Wren he would arrange for another supply crawler to come through in a month. Wren watched as the man secured his mask, and entered the door codes, stepping back out into the antechamber. He was aware, then, of how dry his throat felt as the great doors moaned shut, sealing him alone, again, with an indiscernible amount of things.
Wren worked tirelessly in the time he had left. He marked the days off without error, flipping the calendar on its back to chart the time he had left. As he sorted, Wren couldn’t help but feel anger at the things as they passed through his hands. Everything felt different. He wanted only to have everything into their stacks, labeled and ready to be carted away.
There was nearly a week left on the calendar once Wren finished tagging all the piles. At the end of the last day, he sat down next to the final stack, holding a golden watch and staring at the broken hands. He didn’t know what to do, how to behave without the task that had become everything to him. Wren picked up one of the books and looked over a passage, trying to memorize it. Was that how Kunin had done it–how he had smuggled the books home? His head began to throb as he tried to do the same, reading one passage over, aloud.
“If all we are is our things, then perhaps that is it for us. Perhaps it should be.”
Wren sighed and stood.
He went through the stacks again to make sure everything was in place. Wren stood by the windows on each floor as he worked his way back up, watching for the inevitable plume of exhaust to come puffing toward the building.
Wren tried to imagine what it would be like to return to Hub, to once again be surrounded by people. He laughed bitterly when he remembered that he had spent his time in isolation by choice before, studying, reading, and preparing for the task that would one day–always on the horizon–be his. He wasn’t sure he could go on, could embark on another year of the task knowing now what the solitude was like. But then, what other choice was there?
Wren thought of Kai, and pushed the memory away.
He sat down by the windows on the top floor and looked out at the forest below. It clambered upward like the air wasn’t poison, wrapping about the dead city, sprouting veins through its shell.
Wren stood and turned away, gazing at the tidy piles that lay gathered on the floor. It was all there, all sorted at last. They waited with him in the silence, those things–fragments of a history lost–pulled back from the depths and forced to linger, like memories, or ghosts.