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Atlantia, Page 2

Ally Condie

  I had to find something that could explain what she’d done. Maybe, I thought, there would be a letter, labeled in her neat handwriting, explaining everything, bringing her motives to light.

  I turned out the pockets of all of her clothes. I pulled off the bedspread, blankets, and sheets from her bed, heaved the mattress from the springs and looked underneath. I went through all of my own belongings, just in case. I even steeled myself and opened the box in the closet where we kept the last of my mother’s things, but everything was exactly as it had been when we packed it away. No note.


  To go so suddenly, without any explanation, was cruel, and Bay was never cruel. She could be annoyed and sharp when she was tired or under stress. But those qualities in her were never as strong as they were in me—she was the gentler sister, quicker to laugh, certainly better suited to follow in my mother’s footsteps. I never resented it when people said that, because I knew it was true.

  In the days since Bay left, I’ve done everything I can think of to get to her. I fought through the crowd at the temple until the peacekeepers pulled me back and put me in a holding area with other family members who’d shown signs of causing a scene. After they released us, I went to see the transport go to the surface, but of course it had already left. I stood there, trying to think of a way to follow, but the Council keeps a close watch on the transports and the locks that take them up. That is the only safe way for the living to go Above. Most of the transports are not pressurized for human survival. They’re meant for the transfer of goods and food between the Above and the Below.

  And even in my most desperate imaginings, I know the Council won’t let me join my sister Above. They’ll never permit me to go and I can’t think of a viable way to escape.

  As I walk past a stall in the deepmarket, I see brocades embroidered by someone well-skilled, and I almost reach out to touch the fabric, to linger looking over the designs. But I keep moving, pacing the length of the market way, leaving behind the crawl of stalls and coming out into the area at the edge of the deepmarket where the races take place.

  In spite of the crush of people, it gets very cold in the deepmarket. The market’s hours are limited. Closing time coincides with the dimming time in order to conserve the energy it takes to heat this part of the city and keep the air going. We are deep down here. I shiver, though the walls of Atlantia have never been breached or broken in any significant way.

  When the people prepared for the Divide long ago, they asked for inspiration in designing Atlantia. The story is that the Minister at the time had a dream, in which the gods told him that our city should be patterned after the grand cities of old. The Minister saw Atlantia clearly in his dream—a beautiful place of temples and churches set on plazas. He saw colorful buildings with shops on the ground floor and apartments rising above them, and boulevards and streets connecting everything together.

  But, of course, it all had to be underwater.

  And so Atlantia was conceived as a series of enormous enclosed bubbles, some higher than others, some lower, connected by canals and walkways. The engineers discovered that it was better to make smaller habitats and join them together than to create one large bubble for everything. The centermost sphere is the most desirable part of Atlantia. It holds the temple, the Council buildings, the upmarket, and several living areas. Other, smaller enclosures encompass the lesser churches, markets, and neighborhoods. Some of the deepest bubbles of all are the areas that encompass the machineries of Atlantia, the bays where the mining drones come in for repair and storage, and the deepmarket.

  The engineers spent years designing all of this. Some of the original blueprints are on display in a special glass case in one of the antechambers of the temple. There are rusty stains and splatters on the diagrams. The rumor is that, as the engineers were dying, they sometimes coughed blood onto the papers. They couldn’t stop in their task or humankind would have perished, so they kept on at their sacred, consecrated work. When I mentioned the rumor about the spots on the paper being blood to my mother, she did not debunk it or say the stains were something else. “So many sacrificed for us to live,” she said, and her eyes were very sad.

  The destruction Above meant that there were few natural materials left for use Below. Our city’s underpinnings are made mostly of manufactured goods, with some precious overlays of old materials like the wooden pulpit in the temple and the stones covering a few of the best streets. But Atlantia is still beautiful. One of the things we Atlantians are most proud of is our trees—made of steel trunks and individual, shimmering metallic leaves, they are as lovely as anything that ever existed Above.

  So people say.

  The engineers used the transportation from one of those old cities—a romantic system of canals and boats called gondolas—as a model for our public transit down here. Of course, our gondolas are modernized—they have engines and run on tracks through dry concrete canals. The people of Atlantia love the gondolas although they require constant maintenance. Even though workers repair the gondolas each night after curfew, it’s not uncommon to see a boat beached off its track during the day, machinists swarming around like mermaids gathering about the hulls of shipwrecks in pre-Divide illustrations.

  My mother found the architecture of Atlantia fascinating, and she loved the trees and the gondolas almost as much as she loved the temple. “Flourishes in the face of death,” she told Bay and me once as we looked at the diagrams. “The engineers left their signature in every working of Atlantia. They made the city useful and beautiful.”

  “It’s a second kind of immortality,” Bay said. “They live on in heaven, and in Atlantia herself.”

  My mother looked over at Bay, and their love of the city was so palpable that I felt left out. I loved Atlantia, but not the way they did.

  These lower areas have less embellishment and look more utilitarian than some of the other parts of Atlantia. Here, the rivets are clearly visible on the walls, and the sky is lower. Up at the temple, the soaring rises inside the building echo the high arches of the false sky outside.

  I pass by one of the stalls that sells masks. They aren’t the air masks we carry strapped over our backs—the ones we’re told to keep with us at all times in case of a breach in Atlantia’s walls. The masks sold in the deepmarket are designed to be worn for fun, so you can pretend to be someone else. I feign interest in them, touching the faces of fantastic creatures that used to live in the Above—lions, tigers, horses—all of them known to me only from pictures in books. There are also more fanciful masks—a variety of sea witches, some with green faces, some blue.

  Children delight in telling one another stories about the sea witches. We talked about them at school and when we played together in the plazas. Once, when my mother wanted me to come with her to the temple for a late service and I didn’t want to go, I tried to use what I’d heard as an excuse. “If I go out near the dimming time a sea witch might get me,” I told my mother. “Or a siren.”

  “Sea witches are an old superstition,” my mother said. She didn’t deny the existence of sirens—people, usually women, who can use their voices to convince others to do their bidding—because everyone knows sirens exist. They were the first miracle that came about after the Divide. They were born to the younger generation of those who came Below, and they have been serving Atlantia ever since.

  I am a siren.

  It is a secret my mother decided to keep because sirens’ lives are consecrated to the service of Atlantia, and siren children are given to the Council to raise. My mother didn’t want to give me up.

  “Sea witches are real,” I told my mother. “They have names.” Maybe, I thought, people know when they’re sea witches, but they keep it a secret, the way I keep my secret about being a siren. The thought thrilled me.

  “And what are the witches’ names?” my mother asked in the amused voice I loved, the one that meant
she was willing to go along with my game.

  “Maire,” I said, thinking of a story I’d heard the day before at school. “One of them is named Maire.”

  “What did you say?” My mother sounded shocked.

  “Maire,” I said. “She’s a sea witch and a siren. She has magic, more than just her voice. She gets what she wants from you and then she turns you into sea foam before your family even has a chance to bring your body to the floodgates.” One of the girls at school told me that Maire drank the foam, but I decided to spare my mother this gory detail since her hands had gone to her mouth and her eyes were wide. Too wide. She wasn’t pretending to be horrified. She was horrified, and my mother was not easily shocked.

  “Don’t tell that story anymore,” she said. Her voice trembled and I felt sorry. Perhaps I’d used too much of my voice in telling the story. I hadn’t meant to frighten her.

  “I won’t,” I said. “I promise.”

  Some people said that sirens didn’t have souls, and so I asked my mother if that were true of Maire. “No,” my mother said. “Every living thing has a soul. Maire has a soul.” And of course, my mother knew what I was really asking. “You have a soul, Rio,” she told me. “Never doubt that.”

  It wasn’t until later that our mother told us the truth—that the siren Maire was her sister. Our aunt. “But we no longer speak to each other,” my mother said, a great sorrow in her voice, and Bay and I looked at each other, terrified. How could sisters grow so far apart?

  “Don’t worry,” my mother said, seeing our expressions. “It won’t happen to you. They came and took Maire away when they found out she was a siren, and we weren’t raised together. We grew apart. You see? It’s one of the reasons we have to keep Rio’s secret. We don’t want her to be separated from us. We don’t want to lose her.”

  Bay and I nodded. We understood perfectly.

  And this was an enormous secret for my mother to keep from the Council, especially later when she became Minister. She was supposed to report to the other Council members and work with them closely. She was not supposed to have secrets from them.

  But she did have secrets. At least one, and maybe more.

  It was on Maire’s doorstep that they found my mother the night she died. She went to see her sister, but I don’t know why.

  I’ve made it to the edge of the deepmarket, where they keep the swimming lanes—several heavy cement canals once used for the gondolas. Years ago, some enterprising group hauled the lanes down here and set them up for racing. It must have been difficult to move something so heavy.

  Aldo, the man who organizes the races, nods to me as I approach. “I heard your sister went Above,” he calls out. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Aldo is a few years older than Bay and me. Even though his blue eyes and dark curly hair and smooth features should make him handsome, they don’t.

  “Thank you.” Those two words are all I can manage to say without emotion when people offer me their condolences.

  Aldo’s moment of civility has already ended. “I’m going to have to redo all the race brackets for this weekend now that she won’t be swimming.”

  “Did she leave anything here for me?” I ask.

  “What would she leave?”

  “A note,” I say. “Or something else. I’m not sure.”

  “No,” Aldo says. “She always took her gear with her. We don’t have room to store much down here. You know that.”

  I do. The racing lanes themselves use most of the available space, and the spectator stands take up what’s left. There is a small bank of rent-by-the-hour lockers pushed up near the wall where Aldo posts the brackets; we can keep our things there while we race.

  “Could there be anything in the lockers?” I ask.

  “No,” Aldo says. “I went through them last night. They were all empty.”

  He says it in a disinterested tone, and I believe that he tells the truth. My heart sinks.

  So. She didn’t leave anything here, either. Aldo turns and walks away.

  The water slaps against the walls of the cement canals. Steely thin bleachers rise up on either side, calling to mind the seats in the temple. The priests knew Bay began racing here after my mother’s death, and they turned a blind eye to it. We needed the money. The temple takes care of all of its students’ room and board, of course, but all our work there is considered consecrated and we receive no coin in return. Almost everyone else had two parents to watch over them, to give them pocket money and pay for books and buy new clothes. But the Minister also takes no money for her work, only room and board and clothing. Our mother looked out for us by selling her personal possessions when we needed something new. However, she’d gone through most of those items by the time she died.

  So Bay set out to earn money. It was surprising, how clearly she knew exactly what to do. After I promised to stay, she still grieved deeply, but she was back to her old self in other ways—calm and collected, thinking things through.

  “They have races in the deepmarket,” she told me. “Swimming ones. People bet on them.”

  I knew about the races, even though up until then Bay and I rarely watched them. The priests discouraged it. “But those people have been swimming for years,” I said.

  “We can learn fast,” she said. “It’s in our genes.”

  Bay and I both take after my father physically—we are tall and strong, while my mother was small and delicate. When we were twelve, we passed her in height and kept on growing; she laughed that she had to look up to the two of us.

  My father was a racer, back when it was an approved sport and they had fancy sleek swimming lanes erected in the plazas on weekends. That’s how my mother met him. She was attending one of the races, and he came out of the water after finishing and looked up and saw her. In a crowd of people stirring and shouting there was one spot of stillness: my mother. She stood up because that’s what everyone else was doing, but she kept on reading the book she’d brought with her. That intrigued him. What was so interesting that she couldn’t even be bothered to watch the race? So he climbed up in the stands and found her and asked her to go to one of the cafés with him. She agreed. That was the beginning.

  “But racing is what might have given him water-lung,” I protested.

  “They’ve never proven the link,” Bay said.

  She sold one of my mother’s few remaining personal possessions—a tiger god statue—and used the coin to buy each of us a training suit and practice time in the lanes.

  “I feel naked,” I told Bay the day we first tried on the suits.

  “You shouldn’t,” she said. “These things are almost as modest as our temple robes. We’re covered from stem to stern.”

  That made me laugh, which I hadn’t done often since my mother died, and Bay smiled. We went out to the lanes together, and the teacher shook his head. “Aldo didn’t tell me you were so old,” he said. “It’s no use for me to teach you.”

  “We’re only fifteen,” Bay said.

  “Still too old,” the man said. “You have to start younger than this.”

  “We paid you to teach us,” Bay said. “It’s no concern to you how fast we are as long as you have your coin.”

  Of course, when we both picked up swimming fairly quickly, he acted as though he’d predicted it all along. “It’s in your genes, of course,” he said. “You’ll never be as good as you could have been, if you’d started younger. But I suppose your mother wanted to keep you up at the temple. I can’t say I blame her.”

  “It doesn’t matter if I’m not in the faster brackets,” Bay said to me quietly. “I only have to be good enough to enter and win some of the races.”

  “Wait,” I said. She’d said I, not we. “What about me?”

  “No,” Bay said. “It’s too dangerous.”

  Because of my voice. I knew that was the reason. It always was,
for everything. But this time, I didn’t see why.

  “It’s like everything else,” Bay said. “Anything you do in public runs the risk of exposure. It’s better if you watch. You can tell me if anyone tries to cheat. You can keep an eye on the clock and see if Aldo tries to rig the results.”

  I fumed. “If I’m not going to race, why did I bother learning to swim?”

  “It’s part of who we are,” she said. “Our father knew how. And doesn’t it seem stupid that most of us don’t know how to swim? When we live underwater?”

  “Not really,” I said. “If there’s ever a breach, we’ll all die anyway.”

  “Don’t think like that,” Bay said. So we kept training together, day after day, but I never raced.

  Aldo comes back out with more papers to post on the wall. The rustling of the pages brings me back to the present.

  “I could swim in her bracket,” I say. Racing would be a connection to Bay. A way to burn off some of the restlessness eating me up inside.

  Aldo raises his eyebrows. I can tell that he likes this idea, because he is both sharp and lazy and this will save him some work. “When the two of you trained side by side, you always kept up with her.”

  “Yes,” I say. “I did.”

  “I don’t have a problem with it,” he says. “But the other racers will have to agree with the substitution. And I’ll need to let the bettors know.”

  I nod.

  “Come again tomorrow and I’ll tell you what they say,” Aldo says. He heads back in the direction of the stall where he takes the bets.

  I stand there for a moment more, watching the smooth turquoise water wash against the sides of the racing lane. Aldo colors the water artificially so that it looks more enticing. For the first time since Bay left I feel a tiny bit better. If I make my body tired, maybe my mind can rest, even if only for the moments when I swim and stare down at the line on the bottom of the lane and think about nothing but pushing through my own fatigue.