Ember must make a choice that will change a life forever. The only question is: can she withstand the storm that will follow? — Utopia Falls by @KodyBoyeTweet
When I was a child, my father told me that I could do anything I wanted. This, he said, was the promise made to our world, our people, and our city. Blessed by the God Above, we are each offered the chance to do whatever we want, so long as we are willing to take it. But it is not without fear that we trudge through dark waters—and on a day like this, I struggle not to drown.
My annual test scores have come back with exemplary marks.
I am now eligible to apply for The Connection.
I should be happy. I should be ecstatic. I should be thrilled out of my mind that my test scores were so high, because with them, I could do any and everything I could possibly want. But the truth of the matter is: I am completely, and utterly, terrified. But it is not without reason.
Those eligible for the Connection get to face our God for what She truly is—the savior of our people.
As I stand here, within my assigned testing room, I try my hardest not to tremble, but find myself doing just that.
To see your God, a voice inside my head says. To know Her person, Her aspects, Her secret.
But could I, know? Could I really?
The last person to successfully connect with our God, and become a prophet as a result, was Alabaster Curito, and that was nearly forty years ago. According to some, he’s never been the same since.
But he’s the Illuminarium’s Holy Conduit, I think. Can you even begin to imagine what it would mean if you connected with Her?
I have. And can. And do. But right now, I’m trying to prepare myself for what will happen next.
Maybe I can get out of this. Maybe they won’t look at my test scores. Maybe I missed their criteria by just one point. Maybe… just maybe—
The door opens, and my face instantly pales.
Curtio is standing outside. Three Agents from the Extant Facilities stand alongside him.
“Ember Hillen?” Curito asks.
“Yuh… Yes?” I manage, attempting to swallow the fear in my throat.
“Do you know why we’re here?”
“I… I don’t… I think I—”
“Please,” the tallest and darkest-haired man beside Curito says. “Come with us.”
A primordial fear rises within me as I stand. Born in ages past, and tempered through the history of our people, it threatens to overwhelm me in an instant. Somehow, though—someway—I am able to withstand it, and begin to follow them from the testing room I have been seated within for the past five hours.
For so long I had considered myself an ordinary young woman. Now, I understand, I am something extraordinary.
But extraordinary people, while capable of extraordinary things, are not always promised them. No. Promise, it could be said, is simply a false platitude, upon which the unfortunate truth could be dangling.
As we make our way down the Illuminarium’s dark halls, through which run golden fluorescent lights along the edges of both the ceiling and the floor, I find myself thinking of my father, who knows nothing except that I will have been testing today.
Please, I think. Let me make him proud.
We walk for what feels like an eternity, but can surely only be a few minutes.
Come time we stop, I realize where we’ve arrived.
The Holy Conduit’s chambers.
The three men from the Extant facilities leave us be; and it is here that Curito turns to face me before saying, “Please, come in.”
He pushes his hand to a reader on the door.
It scans his palm.
The door opens.
Inside, Curito leads me to a single table, upon which there lies two cups and a kettle. From this he pours a sweet-smelling tea that reminds me of—
The scent wafts into my nose, and sets ablaze my delight.
“I knew it was your favorite,” the old man says as he continues to pour the tea.
“How?” I ask.
The Holy Conduit lifts his eyes and says, “Sit, Miss Ember Hillen.”
I seat myself tentatively, trying my hardest to keep from grimacing in the face of our greatest holy man. He is the Conduit of our people—the only surviving man who has touched our God’s conscience in years past—and he could either make my future bright or leave me in the dark.
I swallow the lump in my throat as he rounds the table, then seats himself across from me.
“Try it,” he offers, a smile curving his thin lips. “I will warn you: it’s hot.”
I sip the tea, relish its flavors, its textures. The cup is still sticky on the edges, which means that the honey is fresh.
Which means that they may have been expecting this.
A frown crosses my features as I consider this notion, and I lift my eyes to face the man soon after. “Sir?” I ask.
“Yes?” he replies.
“Why am I here?”
“Is it not obvious?”
I swallow a lump in my throat and try my hardest to remain composed, but find that it is nearly impossible to do so. My lower lip trembles. My heart pounds. Tremors in my hands cause the tea to shiver within the cup. I have to tighten the muscles in my arms to keep from showing more emotion than necessary.
With a long exhale, Curito sips his own tea and says, “Your test scores are exemplary, Miss Hillen.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“It means: you may be our next Conduit.”
“What?” I pale as I consider this. “Surely you’re mistaken. The tests can’t be over yet.”
“Most of the tests ended hours ago, Miss Hillen. Yours were prolonged because our artificial intelligence realized your potential.”
“But… I’m just…”
“A girl who wanted to be a doctor,” I reply.
Curito smiles and says, “People who reach for their goals often find other opportunities presented to them.”
I’m unsure how to reply.
With a smile, Curito leans forward and presses a button on his side of the gray table. A panel slides out of place, revealing a touch screen, upon which there is varying amounts of information, beside which are test scores.
“Your marks,” the man continues anew, “are beyond anything we have seen in recent years. You understand history, biology, mathematics, our written language and its syntaxes and rules. You understand some of the greatest psychological phenomena related to the human mind, and are capable of deciphering problems from the tiniest of clues.”
“What are you trying to say? That I’m smart?”
“You are more than smart, Ember. You are extraordinary.”
There it is—that word again. Extraordinary. Something I feel I have never been, and never will be so long as I live.
“Tell me,” Curito says, drawing me from my thoughts. “Did you attempt to deceive the intelligence in any way? Possibly by giving untrue answers?”
“No,” I say, and frown. “Why would I do that?”
“Some are afraid of their true potential.”
“But why would I be?”
“That is a question only you can answer.”
I find that I can only stare.
With a smile, Curito stands, extends a hand to me, and says, “If you would.”
He leads me back to the door we entered through, then pulls it open before guiding me into the hall.
“Where are we going, sir?”
Curito doesn’t respond. Instead, he merely leads me through the many halls we initially passed through, then toward the Illuminarium’s Central Chamber. Normally, it would be full of people, who would be accessing the boundless information through the holocomputers. Today, it is empty, possibly because of the testing that has taken place.
At the door, Curito hesitates, then pulls the Illuminarium’s front door open.
Given that I have been in darkness for so long, my eyes struggle to adapt to the light that pierces in. Soon, however, they adjust.
The sight before us never ceases to amaze me.
Anyone looking in the sky at this hour of the day would have seen nothing out of the ordinary. For me, though—a girl who has just been chosen to attempt a connection to our God—I see something beyond the scope of mortal comprehension, and tremble as a result.
Our God floats in the sky above the city. Her head looks to the Heavens, the stone pillars that serve as Her wings descend at angles on either side of Her neck, and in place of where Her body would be there descends tendrils, which flicker with a bright gold luminescence that lights our world. A light wind is projected from somewhere deep inside Her skull, and wafts about the city with ease that I find wondrous to this day. She is marvelous, and an icon to our people. Most of all: She is our savior.
Curito smiles as he looks up at Her—as he takes in all Her wonder, Her majesty, Her Might. Then he opens his mouth, and says, “Be proud, Ember Hillen, for soon, you may know Her in ways few ever have.”
As I stare up at the God—whose stone head and emotionless gaze look forever to the Heavens—I find a flicker of doubt spreading from my heart all the way up to my brain.
Will I succeed? I wonder. Or will I fail?
There is no true way to know.
I lie awake for an undetermined period of time. Refusing to look at the smart screen embedded into my bedroom wall, or at the time displayed upon it, I stare at the ceiling in a meager attempt to fall asleep, but find myself considering everything that has happened instead
I see Curito’s pale skin in my mind, his weathered hands, his aged expression, and I wonder: Is this my fate? Is this what will happen to me? Common sense would indicate that this will not likely be the case, because for one: I have to first Connect to our God; and two: I am a woman of color, and will age differently as a result.
These thoughts, and more, haunt me well into the night, and even after I fall asleep.
By the time I awaken the following morning, I find myself dreading the day, and the upcoming Connection, all over again.
“Good morning, Ember,” the AI says.
“Good morning,” I reply.
“Would you like me to read your messages?”
“I guess,” I offer, pulling the sheet up over my chest.
The artificial intelligence cycles through her automated processes for a few short moments before saying: “Jonathan Eeyers has sent a message.”
“Read it to me,” I say.
“Hey, Ember. It’s me, John. The tests were wild, weren’t they? I placed fine—or, at least, I think I did. I know you already did amazingly. Do you want to hang out later today? Let me know, and thanks.”
The artificial intelligence falls silent.
“Send an invitation to meet with Jonathan Eeyers,” I offer in response.
“Invitation sent,” the AI says.
Sighing, I roll out of bed and lift my eyes to face the smart screen embedded into my wall.
It’s almost twelve o’clock already? I think, and frown. I can’t believe I slept so long.
Who could blame me, though, after the day I’d had, or the feelings I’d experienced? My life had changed in an instant—and will continue to change as the days go on.
If you Connect, anyway, I am quick to remind myself.
A frown paints my features as I wander into my attached bathroom, strip out of my clothes, and step into the shower, in which lukewarm soapy water of my scent of choice peppers my body in rapid bursts. I sigh as the sweet smell of pomegranate wafts through my nose, and rub the soap along my arms and face to clean myself thoroughly.
Normally on a day like this, I’d take my time to shower. But knowing that Jonathan will soon arrive leaves me in no state to relax. So, with that in mind, I crawl out of the shower, dress, then begin to apply my makeup.
I have just finished painting my winged eyeliner along my tear ducts when the artificial intelligence announces Jonathan’s presence.
“Coming!” I call, lowering my brushes back into their tray, which instantly withdraws into my desk to clean and sanitize them.
In less than a moment, I am making my way from my room and into the living room.
Jonathan Eeyers—tall, pale, and lanky—awaits me. His blue eyes watch me from behind his lengthy fringe. “Hey,” he says.
“Hi,” I say. “Do you want to come in, or—”
“I figured we could walk the city, maybe do lunch or something.”
“That’d be nice.”
“You’re ready to go?”
“Yeah. I am.”
I step out into the warm afternoon air and wait for the door to close behind me before I begin to follow Jonathan down the hill.
“So,” he says, turning his head down to look at me. “How did the tests go?”
“I don’t—” I start to say.
“What am I thinking?” he asks, cutting me off before I can continue. “Of course you got high marks. The AI probably already assigned you an internship at the hospital, didn’t it?”
“Jonathan—” I start.
“I mean, yeah: it’s nearly impossible to get an internship at Trinity Hospital on your first try, but you’ve been studying for months. I don’t see how you couldn’t have gotten in.”
“What’s the holdup, Ember? Why aren’t you saying anything?”
“I’m trying to!” I snap.
Jonathan comes to a halt.
I bump into him.
The tall young man turns to look at me and says, “Sorry. I was rambling. How’d your test go?”
“I didn’t get the internship.”
He laughs. “Really, Ember? Is this one of your jokes?” He pauses and narrows his eyes. “Come on: be honest. You got the internship, didn’t you?”
“No, Jonathan. I didn’t.”
He pales. His eyes darken. His lips purse into a frown. “But… if you didn’t get the internship, then what did you—”
“My marks came back exemplary, Jonathan.”
The young man can only stare. “Thu… That means—”
“I’m eligible for the Connection. Yeah. I know.”
“By our God,” he mumbles, tilting his head up to the sky. “I… I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I.”
“You really did make her smart,” he tells the floating being above, “didn’t you?”
I reach up and smack the back of Jonathan’s head.
“Ow!” he says.
“That’s for making fun of me,” I offer.
“I wasn’t making fun,” he replies. “I was just thanking Her for your smarts.”
I smack him a second time.
“Ow! Stop doing that!”
“I’m scared to death and all you can do is crack jokes?”
“I’m trying to lighten the mood,” he offers, sliding his hands into his pockets before turning to face me directly. He frowns as he considers the look that must be in my eyes, then asks, rather pointedly: “Are you really scared?”
“They say people who go through the Connection are never the same.”
“If they Connect,” Jonathan offers. “That’s a big if. Remember? Not everyone is worthy.”
“I don’t think it has anything to do with being worthy, John. I… I think it has to do with whether or not She wants to Connect with someone.”
“She connected with Curito,” Jonathan offers. “I mean, considering how batty the old man is—”
I press a hand to my mouth.
“What?” he asks, a crooked smile on his face. “You know it’s true.”
“Curito is our Holy Conduit. That’s almost as bad as disrespecting our God.”
“But he’s not God, Ember. He’s a man, just like us.” He pauses. “Well, you’re a girl, so… maybe not the best example, but—”
I shake my head and begin to lead on.
“Hey!” he says, pumping his legs to keep pace beside me. “What’s wrong? Why are you acting like this?”
“I’m just… scared… that I won’t be myself after it.”
“I doubt you’re going to have an instant personality switch.”
“Maybe not an instant one, but one nonetheless?” I shake my head. “I just… just—”
“I don’t know,” I say, and sigh. I cross my arms over my chest and consider everything that could happen, everything that has happened, that will. A part of me simply wants to break down, but another knows that doing so, especially in front of my best friend, won’t serve me well. So, for that reason, I simply straighten my posture.
“Ember?” Jonathan says. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” I say, though I know it’s a lie, and I know Jonathan will know it, too. I start forward without much of a thought. “Let’s just get lunch.”
“Okay,” he offers, sliding up alongside me. “But we should probably avoid anything near the Extant Facilities.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because of that.”
He lifts his hand and points.
I can only stare.
Crowded, among the premier construction factory within the Utopian city, are dozens upon dozens of people. Each are split into two groups, and each shout at each other with abandon I know comes only from the impassioned and enraged.
“Expand! Expand!” one group cries.
“Stagnant! Stagnant!” the other counters.
I shiver—more out of unease than actual fear—and find myself coming to a halt at the edge of the city sphere.
“We shouldn’t be here,” Jonathan offers.
“Why?” I ask. “It’s just a protest.”
“With a counter protest,” he replies. “You know what happens when things get out of hand.”
I do, but that doesn’t stop me from staring at each group—at the Expands on one side and the Stagnants on the other. While one rallies for the expansion of the city—a feat which is currently impossible given the volatile world beyond our walls—the other argues for stagnation. In a rapidly growing city that is now struggling to meet the demands of its population, it makes sense that one group would want to move into the wasteland.
But we can’t, I think. At least, not now, not until they figure out how to make it safe.
The engineers—and my father in particular—helm the Expansion Project, which seeks to create safe or “bubble” settlements beyond Utopia. But they have been working on it for years, and there is no guarantee when, or if, it will ever get off the ground.
As I stare at the two groups—considering not only my father’s wellbeing, but the safety of those people protesting—Jonathan takes hold of my arm and says, “Come on. They’re coming.”
“Who—” I start to say.
Then I see them: the guardians of our city. Tall, majestic, golden in color, but mechanical in nature, the Sirens—who stand at least ten feet in height and resemble crowned, long-limbed women—exit the Extant Facilities and begin to make their way toward both groups.
The crowd divides. People rush away. A choice few threaten to remain, but one of the two Sirens turns its head to face them, and begins to project sharp projections from its mouthpiece.
The people close by scramble.
Those beyond its radius, like me and Jonathan, reach up to cover our ears.
“Come on!” Jonathan says.
I follow without hesitation, but not before looking back at the Extant Facilities and the men and women staggering away from the Sirens.
On one hand, I am thankful that their artificial intelligence drives them to keep the people of Utopia safe. On another, I can’t help but wonder:
What would happen if things got out of hand?
It soon becomes apparent that they are, in fact, the only other two present to take part in the Connection. One is a young man—who, with dark skin and short hair, looks on at the crowd with nearly-black eyes. The other youth is a young woman, possibly only a little older than me, with a shock of red hair that tangles over her pale, freckled skin. She considers me only for a moment before nodding and turning her attention to the crowd bordering the edges of the Ascended Circle.
Curito steps out from the shadowy depths of the Illuminarium’s entryway.
The three of us bow our heads in acknowledgement.
“Good morning,” he says.
“Good morning,” the three of us reply.
“I assume you all are ready to bear witness and attempt a Connection?”
The three of us nod in response.
“Good,” Curito replies, and presses a hand to first the pale girl’s shoulder, then the young man’s. When his hand falls upon mine, his fingers tighten around my upper arm, and he says, “May She find you worthy.”
“May She find us worthy,” we repeat.
The man nods one last time before saying, “They’re about to begin.”
The media—who have arrived with cameramen and drones and reporters—draw close to fix their broadcasting equipment upon us.
“Hello, and welcome to the annual Connection,” the newscaster named Ramona Wild says.
The crowd cheers.
The wind responds in kind.
“It is our greatest honor to have with us today the three students whose hard work, dedication, and belief in our society has marked them as exemplary.”
Several people cheer. Some nod. A few others bow their heads and begin to pray.
The dark-haired woman turns her head and points toward us.
A floating drone—whose flight is aided by two rapidly spinning gears—draws forward to take in our appearances.
The pale girl smiles.
The dark boy nods.
And I—I merely look on, as the Nexus that is at our God’s center begins to pulse with light.
“As has occurred throughout our past,” Ramona Wild begins, “and will continue to occur in our present and our future, we will now allow our God the chance to Connect with the three young people before you.”
“Kimberly Addams,” a tall man from the Extant Facilities says. “Will you please step forward.”
The pale girl’s smile is gone. In its place is something akin to determination. This guides her forward on careful feet, on unsure limbs, and in silent trepidation.
As she comes to stand in the center of the Ascended Circle—where, it could be said, that all men’s dreams come to thrive or die—the God’s tendrils extend to the far reaches of the city and blanket the sky above us in a miasma of pale blue light. The girl’s eyes are wide as saucers, but it isn’t this that draws my attention.
It’s the single tendril that appears from the God’s usually dark Nexus that captures my gaze.
Golden in color, and bright as any fire, it slowly extends on the pale wind emanating from the God’s Nexus, and comes to hover directly above the girl.
She tilts her head back. Closes her eyes. Waits.
Then, the God touches her, and attempts the Connection.
For several long moments we wait.
My heart pounds. My breath runs ragged.
Within moments, Kimberly Addams collapses.
What has just begun has now ended.
The crowd gasps.
Two members of the Extant Facilities draw forward to collect the redhead from the Ascended Circle.
“Jonah Armstrong,” the man who ushered Kimberly Addams forward says. “Please step into the Ascended Circle.”
The young man swallows, and nervously glances at me before taking several steps forward. He comes to a halt at the edge of the circle, then closes his eyes.
At first, I’m unsure why he’s stopped.
Then I realize why.
He’s trembling—literally vibrating with fear.
“Jonah,” Curito says, taking a step forward. “What is wrong? Why aren’t you going?”
“I’m scared,” Jonah replies. “Huh-Holy Conduit Curito, I’m… I’m scared.”
“There is nothing to fear, my son. She will merely graze your conscience to determine if you are Her Conduit.”
Jonah looks past our Holy Conduit to gaze at me—and though I want to offer something, anything, to help him, I can do little more than nod.
With a sigh, the young man turns and steps into the circle.
The single tendril—which has remained in place following Kimberly Addams’ departure—extends itself toward Jonah Armstrong.
The God attempts Her connection once more.
This time, however, Jonah screams.
He stumbles back, then trips on one of the steps.
His head connects with the hard stone, and blood seeps from a gash on his temple.
Medibots—which resemble four-legged crabs and are armed with a multitude of medical technology—dart forward on swift wings to examine and tend to his injuries. Then two men carrying a stretcher rush forward to take him away.
“Ember Hillen,” the Extant Facilities member announces. “You are the last to participate in the Connection.”
I swallow the lump that has risen in my throat and attempt to wash my fear down with it, but find that it does little more than cause me further anxiety.
You can’t wait, I think. Now’s your time.
“My time,” I whisper, in a voice so low I feel only I can hear it.
With that in mind, I step forward.
The tendril—which has graced two and felled both simply by touching them—extends toward me.
I tilt my head back, blink, then narrow my eyes as the blinding golden light enters my retinas.
A moment later, the tendril makes contact.
I blink. Breathe. Inhale, exhale. A presence washes over me like soft waters in a bathtub, and through its person I hear a voice.
Ember, the voice says. Ember.
Elation washes over me. All fear dissipates. A calm envelops my body.
In a moment, there is darkness.
Then, shortly thereafter: light.
I do not know what I see. So beyond me is the cataclysmic eruption of light and color that at first I can do little more than watch. My chest vibrates with unsung energy, and my breathing becomes erratic and harsh, like a hammer desperately pounding an unruly nail. There are reds and yellows and blues and golds and pinks and purples and greens galore. They spark once, twice, a third time, a fourth. They dance across my vision, and create a symphony of color and sound within my mind.
I feel, for a moment, that it is God attempting to speak with me through the art of synesthesia—the act of one sensation being substituted for another.
But what is this? I think. Is this a lesson? A schematic? Life?
The colors vibrate into focus a short moment later.
I tilt my head down, and stare.
Shallow waters lie beneath my feet. Ripples echo out from my bare toes. Inertia beckons me forward, and within moments, I am literally walking over water—toward a light that exists at the far edge of what appears to be a tunnel.
What is— I start to think.
The colors begin to blur a moment later.
My head swims.
My vision goes out of focus.
I feel bile rising in my throat.
I stumble back—
Feel the tendril slip from my forehead—
Then experience a rush of adrenaline as I impact with the Utopian ground beneath my feet.
The last thing I hear, before I lose consciousness, is our Holy Conduit saying, “Welcome, Holy Conduit Hillen.”
by Kody Boye
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Society has reached its peak within the walled city of Utopia. While the outside world lies in inhospitable ruins, the city within brims with technological marvels—all thanks to a benevolent god that appeared during humanity’s darkest hour. But with the city on the verge of overpopulation, and the world outside not promised to be safe, time is running out for the Utopian people, and it’ll take one brave young woman to change the course of history.Seventeen-year-old Ember Hillen has lived in the shadow of the god her entire life. With a promising future in medicine, she believes that her future is set in stone. What she doesn’t expect is for her Aptitude Test scores to come back with exemplary remarks—or to be chosen as her city’s next Holy Conduit.
As the Holy Conduit, Ember can connect with, and receive visions of, her god’s desires for the Utopian city. The only problem? Her god is implying that her people must somehow journey beyond their isolated city to build a new world in the wasteland. But with the mad leader of the premier engineering facility within Utopia attempting to sway Ember through whatever means possible, Ember must make a choice that will change a life forever. The only question is: can she withstand the storm that will follow?
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Though Kody Boye was born and raised in Southeastern Idaho, he moved south at the age of eighteen and has resided in various parts of Texas since 2010, living first in Austin, then in Fort Worth before finally landing in the Rio Grande Valley. His first story, [A] Prom Queen’s Revenge, was published in the Yellow Mama Webzine at the age of fourteen. His debut novel, Sunrise, followed at age eighteen.
Since then, he has written several novels across multiple speculative fiction genres. His most recent works include When They Came, The Beautiful Ones, Kingsman Online,and The Red Wolf Saga.Kody is currently enrolled in an online university and pursuing an undergraduate degree in creative writing and English, with plans to further his education with an MFA, which will allow him to teach.
When not writing, Kody enjoys reading young-adult novels, playing video games such as World of Warcraft and Guild Wars, and browsing social media endlessly.
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