Steel Lily(2)
Author:Megan Curd


    The narrow grey hallways in this building reminded me of a prison. The energy saving lights flickered off and on, far past their replacement date. A water leak somewhere dripped and echoed off the walls, joining with my footsteps. It felt like a death march.

    Another class with more vipers.

    Another day to donate steam.

    Rinse and repeat.

    I longed to escape from this place.

    I rounded the corner and the bay came into view, overflowing with people waiting to board the airbus. Old lights overhead cast everyone in an eerie glow as they moved and swayed like the ocean tide. Overhead speakers blared warnings and orders. Due to a steam shortage, the Dome’s oxygen filtration system has been shut off for the day. Please utilize your government-provided oxygen masks while traveling outside, the ancient speaker system repeated in a low, garbled tone. Half the words were indecipherable, but we’d all heard the instructions enough times to know what we needed to do.

    Cogs and gears to the right of the transport bay door hummed as they waited to be activated and people milled about, trying not to step on one another. I squeezed myself into a corner and searched my bag for my oxygen mask.

    The woman beside me was staring my direction, her little boy holding onto her leg. I pulled my jacket tighter and looked at the floor, but she cocked her head to the side to watch me. I knew what question was coming, and counted the three beats before she posed it. “Are your eyes real?”

    I got that question all the time. After a while, I started making up unlikely stories to keep it interesting. “No, I was simply bored one afternoon and decided to color one green. It seems that permanent marker really is permanent.”

    Both the woman and the little boy’s mouths dropped open. The little boy whipped around to face his mother. “Mommy, can I try that when we get home?”

    Before I had the chance to reply, the crowd went silent and began to part like the Red Sea, revealing a woman dressed in the Polatzi garb. Her black cape rippled behind her as she strode forward, and the hooked beak of her mask glinted in the yellow light. Without a word, she pressed a button on the wall and a holographic sign flickered above us.

    Please don your masks.

    Our group moved in unison as we followed orders. My lightweight, white mask drew the attention of the others as I positioned it on. Stupid Elite Government issue — they had the best of everything. The scent of latex and cleaning solution filled my nostrils as the mask kicked on with a hiss, and the polarized lenses tinted everything in a darker hue. The temperature, date, and my current heart rate scrolled across the right lens, ending with a Thank you for your service to our Dome.

    Thank you, my foot. Service? More like indentured servant.

    The gears groaned like an overworked mule as they opened the door. A short hallway emerged from behind the rising steel. A rusted, round hatch stood at the end with a massive seal lock that was emblazoned with warnings in red, the paint crusting away from the corroding door. We filed in and waited for the task force woman to push her way to the front.

    She punched a crimson button and turned to us, pulling her beaked mask up just enough to reveal her rosy lips. “We’ve got a schedule to keep. Let’s go!”

    She pulled her mask back into place and unlocked the seal, then pushed the door open. I squinted, trying to adjust to the glare of the red sun reflected off the Dome’s glass. Heat forced itself upon us in waves, and sweat began to trickle down my back.

    Light filtered through the thick glass overhead. Millions of water droplets trickled down the sides, with gutters along the steel casing in an effort to contain the rust damage.

    Ironic that the very steam that kept us alive slowly ate away the metal that protected us.

    Ironic that the place that kept us safe from the outside world was also the place my parents had gone missing.

    They called this place Dome Four, but it was actually a series of monolithic windows held together by steel beams. The large panes reminded me of a stained glass window I’d once seen in a church. Only these weren’t made of pretty colored glass; the toxic atmosphere outside had colored them a permanent grey, subduing the world in a dull, overcast aura.

    The way I’d felt since my parents disappeared.

    My chest constricted at the thought. No, no time to think about them today. I’ve got to stay focused.

    Stagnant air made the space feel claustrophobic. Rays from the harsh glare of the sun bounced off the dome’s rippled glass, and tall, thin shadows slanted across the dome as afternoon gave way to twilight. The smell of rust was thicker than usual; construction crews must have been reinforcing the beams that held the dome aloft.

    Droplets of water hit my head, and I looked up. Oxygen purifiers hummed high above. Those machines were the only things keeping the air clean enough to breathe since World War III decimated our atmosphere.

    I stopped short of the hovering airbus and looked out over the Dome. To the west, Wutherford Tower’s lights were bright and steady, a reminder that only the rich and well connected had the means to keep their homes powered around the clock. That left the rest of the population literally in the dark once the sun set. I hated it. The war had polarized everything and everyone; there were a Traditionals: someone who was normal by all accounts and expendable, and Elites; the government, the rich, or an Elementalist.

    Elites were pampered…rich. Traditionals were lucky to survive. I hated being considered Elite.

    Caved in rooftops and rebar extending from the tops of buildings stretched out as far as the eye could see…all the way to the edge of the Dome, where the condemned housing sat. Beyond that laid a wasteland even worse than the one in this modified fish bowl.

    The thought of what might lay beyond the boundaries—what desecrated, ruined mess our world might be in—caused me to shiver, even in this overbearing humidity. Sweat dripped off my brow and stung my eyes. The mass of people pushed into me, spurring me onward. There was no time to daydream of what might be outside our Dome.

    There was no time to dream of anything.

    Dreaming was reserved for those who weren’t struggling to survive, and we lost that luxury long ago.





    CHAPTER


    TWO




    Ten minutes later, the airbus jerked to a stop on the tarmac of our destination, and the doors whirred open. We were in the capital, at the only building that Traditionals were permitted to visit and my “home”: Wutherford Tower.

    Thick plumes of dark smoke billowed out of the dual stacks at the top of the tower, slowly dissipating into the already toxic air. The steel millers must have been hard at work today. I tugged at the straps of my oxygen mask, thankful for it.

    Wutherford Tower was an oxymoron at it’s finest: the highs and lows of society constantly intermingling and colliding with one another. Steel millers and Elites tried their hardest to avoid running into one another, as if the other carried a contagious disease.

    Trash dipped and floated in the wind from the hovering airbus, whipping them into a frenzy before falling to the ground like crude snow. The smoke stacks loomed over us and blocked out the sun. Its rays split on either side of the monstrous building and made the entire structure look like a giant shadow. The temperature dropped noticeably in the shade and I welcomed the break in the relentless heat.

    I ducked between people and entered the massive foyer as the warning tone for the next class reverberated off the steel beams inside the tower. The crowd dissipated into one of three hallways available from the loading dock as the bay door shut off the natural light from outside. I put my mask back in my bag and headed for the hallway to the right.

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