Read the prologue and first chapter of Purgatory below, a Y.A. dystopian project in development.
Ridgley Groves hadn’t planned on blowing everything up.
Not that her intentions mattered, she realized as she raced away from the fire caused by an explosion––her own explosion––in the control room of a dark, dreary warehouse.
Ridgley wove through the hallways, glancing behind her back to make sure her pursuers were not yet in sight. If they were, it would be the end of her. Unfortunately, her body (if not her mind) had spent two years running around in a human-sized hamster-ball, her only food tube-fed essential nutrients. It had left Ridgley weak and shaky, to say the least.
To make matters worse, Ridgley was hopelessly lost in the maze that was the warehouse. The place was massive, and Ridgley had not had enough time to memorize it.
But she should have––she had spent seventeen of the nineteen years of her life living in the facility built around the warehouse. Purgatory was what they called it. Two years should have been enough time. Ridgley mentally chastised her former self for not thinking. She had been stupid, naive, brainwashed…she vowed to never let that happen again.
Ridgley glanced to her left as she hobbled along the hallway. The glass walls allowed her to see her motivation for running.
Countless bodies, all moving mindlessly in the circular balls––the residents of Purgatory called them pods––were packed into rows. Each person had two electrodes hooked to their temples. They looked zombie-like. The sight was likely eery––horrifying, even––but it didn’t faze Ridgley. She had long since gotten used to it.
Ridgley herself had red indents on her temples from where her own electrodes had rested for two years. Now, she carried the electrodes, a sleek computer, and a small black power box in her weak arms. Her black hair was about an inch long. Longer than most of the people in the chairs. She must have gotten out just before her head was shaved. She wasn’t sure whether or not she was happy about it. It would depend on how cold it was outside. She had no idea what time of year it was, after all.
But she supposed that it would help with her cover if she ran into any Monitors who weren’t yet aware of the situation. If the dark circles under her eyes didn’t give her away first, anyway. She was grateful she was black––it would help hide the fact that she hadn’t seen the sun in years. She was also rather tall and had once been told her brown eyes could see into people’s souls (an idea she had found ridiculous), which she hoped would intimidate any Monitors unlucky enough to cross her path.
Ridgley rounded yet another corner and immediately jumped back as light hit her face. The exit. Ridgley blinked rapidly, preparing herself. The light hurt. But she couldn’t––wouldn’t––let a little light stop her.
Ridgley narrowed her eyes, head down, and raced for the exit. The home stretch. She could feel freedom a moment away…
Until she crashed into someone.
Ridgley’s equipment went flying. She jumped to her feet, scrambling after it. Through her narrow eyes, she caught a glimpse of who she ran into. A girl with a Monitor pin. Ridgley tried not to panic.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there. Let me help you––”
“No,” Ridgley rasped, her voice scratchy with disuse. She immediately kicked herself mentally for speaking, coughing to cover the scratchiness. A dead giveaway. She needed to get out of there.
Ridgley piled her stuff together, hiding them from the Monitor best she could while half-blind. She stood, but when she lifted her head, she found the girl’s icy blue eyes inches from her own.
“Are you okay?” the girl inquired, taking another step toward her.
Ridgley opened her mouth. No, she absolutely wasn’t. As her eyes adjusted and the curious, naive girl’s eyes came into focus, she felt a sudden, stupid urge to warn her.
“Get out. Get away while you can,” Ridgley warned as she pushed past the girl and ran for the exit. Hoping, praying, she hadn’t just ruined her one chance at escape.
The girl took a step after Ridgley, but stopped when her walkie beeped.
The voice from the device was grave, “All Monitors secure your exits and remain alert. A dangerous graduate is loose in the facility. This is not a drill.”
Ridgley darted for the door and pushed it open, stepping into the sunlight for the first time in years.
She was free.
“We’re using the backup generators for now, and everyone who was woken is back in the sim. Unfortunately, the perp is definitely gone. She slipped through the fence. She may not have known her way around the warehouse, but she sure knew her way around Purgatory.”
Of course she had. The girl had lived in Purgatory for seventeen years, after all. Even so, Charlotte 67816 felt a twinge of guilt as she listened to Head Monitor Priscilla 67592 catch the rest of her team up as they sat around a conference table in a windowless room. Even so, she refused to let her guilt show as Priscilla met her gaze. You didn’t know she was running, she reminded herself. She was shaken by the encounter. She was the only one who had seen the girl…and she had failed to realize what was happening. Charlotte hoped and prayed that this would not cause any points to be revoked from her record.
“The Computer ordered us not to pursue her. But stay vigilant in case she comes back,” Priscilla said, “What can you tell us about Ridgley 63340, Charlotte?”
Charlotte swept her icy blue gaze over the others. Ten monitors in all, five who would graduate with her in ten days, the other five in the class below. They had been shadowing the older Monitors for the past two months and would take over their positions once her class went into the simulation.
“Black, emaciated, around five-ten, short black hair, light brown eyes, high cheek-bones. A bit…crazed.” And it wasn’t my fault, she wanted to add.
“A bit crazed? What the hell does that look like, 67816?” a commanding voice demanded.
It belonged to Maya 68024, the 16-year-old future Head Monitor. Maya and Charlotte generally got along, but Maya expected perfection even from the older residents and accepted nothing less. Maya had a powerful presence––the other residents either admired her, envied her, or were afraid of her. Sometimes all three. Maya was short and good-looking, her brown skin and hair always perfect.
“Mind your language,” a stern voice scolded. It belonged to Ms. Belmonte, the direct contact to the Computer and overseer of the women’s side of Purgatory.
She was also a robot.
Ms. Belmonte’s unyielding silver eyes scanned over the room. Charlotte straightened as the gaze reached her. Not that she needed to––Charlotte’s posture was always perfect. And yet, Ms. Belmonte had always made Charlotte feel unsettled, as if she were doing something wrong even when she wasn’t. She felt as if the overseer could see directly into her mind, judging her every move.
Perhaps she could. Though she looked mostly human (with the exception of her silver eyes and occasional inhuman speed), Ms. Belmonte was an artificial intelligence. Who knew what kind of technological powers she had. She always wore her hair in a tight tidy bun, her angular face turned into a permanently impassive expression.
As Overseer, she was the monitor of the Monitors. She made sure they were upholding their oaths of taking care of the residents fairly and that they did not use their power to tamper with the system.
“Unhinged,” Charlotte responded. She couldn’t think of any better way to describe it––it was more of a feeling that had radiated off of the girl. She wanted to add alluring, but decided that crazed was enough for now.
Maya opened her mouth to retort, but Priscilla shot her down with a glare. “Just keep your eyes open and your mouths closed. You’re dismissed. Except you, Charlotte.”
Maya gave Priscilla a quizzical look. Since Maya would be taking over as Head Monitor when Priscilla graduated into the simulation in just over a week, she was mostly acting as Head Monitor, with Priscilla stepping back and acting as her mentor to make sure she made just decisions.
Charlotte tried to keep herself calm as the other Monitors headed for the exit. Maya was the last one out, shooting Charlotte a disappointed look as she disappeared. Ms. Belmonte followed behind her, her jagged movements betraying that she was not quite human.
“I swear I didn’t know she was leaving,” Charlotte started.
“Hmph,” was Priscilla’s only reply. Charlotte let the silence hang for a moment before growing impatient.
“Why am I here?” Charlotte inquired, a bit suspicious, “I’m not going to get points revoked, am I? I swear––”
“Your record won’t be changed,” Priscilla answered coolly. Charlotte immediately filled with relief. She tried not to let Priscilla see.
When the residents turned six, they entered the point system. They accumulated points by completing tasks, reporting other residents when they acted out of line, and modeling good behavior that would benefit the community and the simulation. And when the residents misbehaved, broke rules, or disobeyed the Monitors, points were revoked.
And points were more valuable than gold in the simulation. They were power.
If you had over 1075 points––Charlotte was currently at 1096––you were granted administrator status upon graduation into the simulation.
“But you can’t tell your sister about this, okay? She’s already—”
“I would never share sensitive Monitor information with her. You should know that.”
So Priscilla did blame her. Why else would she imply that Charlotte would ever share confidential Monitor information with her sister? Charlotte and Priscilla had always had a rivalry. Priscilla had (barely) had more points than Charlotte when she was named Head Monitor last year, but Charlotte had since passed her, creating a strange competitive tension between them. It didn’t help that the two of them had the two highest point counts of any residents in the past sixty years.
It also didn’t help that everyone could see that Charlotte was ahead. Each resident could simply look down at the implants on their fellow residents’ inner forearms to see their current point amount and the ranking for the year.
The “1” on Charlotte’s forearm was a personal offense to Priscilla. It was almost unheard of for someone to have more points than the Head Monitor.
“You may have the most points in Purgatory, but that does not mean you get to run around as if you own the place. We still have ten days before graduation, 67816. You can still get points revoked.”
“I am aware of how the point system works. Better than anyone, apparently, including yourself,” Charlotte shot back. She refused to let herself be bullied by Priscilla, even if it made her life more difficult.
She supposed all of the rebellious genes hadn’t gone to her sister after all.
Priscilla glared for several long seconds before nodding in dismissal. Charlotte quickly headed for the door. Something about the situation with Ridgley didn’t sit right with her. Why would anyone want to leave? Get out. Get away while you can. Ridgley’s words echoed in Charlotte’s mind, haunting her. Refusing to leave her alone.
As Charlotte exited the warehouse and headed across the large, barren courtyard toward her bunker, she couldn’t help but wonder what had made Ridgley 63340 run.
The girl would have nowhere to go, anyway. Purgatory was surrounded by the Endless Desert. As far as the residents knew, nothing else was out there.
The residents spent their entire lives preparing to enter the simulation when they finished their sixteenth year of service. It was the prize. After spending their childhood and adolescence serving those living their perfect lives in the simulation, it would finally be their turn. They would finally get out of Purgatory. That is, after their final brain scan and assuming they had enough points to be deemed “worthy”. Purgatory was self-sustaining, the older residents teaching the younger ones. However, whenever the Monitors, who were tasked with keeping Purgatory running, ran into an unprecedented problem, they would consult the Computer.
No one was exactly sure of where the Computer originated from, but it had been generating solutions for generations. That was the story that Ms. Belmonte told them, anyway. And Charlotte did not question it. Why would she? Purgatory was a well-oiled machine and the simulation was perfect.
The Computer was the one that kept track of the residents’ points. The Monitors would report daily numbers to the Head Monitor––Priscilla––who would then give the data to Ms. Belmonte, who would in turn make sure all the point deductions and increases were legitimate through what she could see through the facility’s cameras. After Ms. Belmonte input the data into the Computer, the residents’ numbers would update into their implants for all to see. It was a reminder. Motivation. The Computer was the one who determined the graduation point minimum was 400 points.
And if they didn’t have over 400, they would be stuck in Purgatory to grow old, stuck doing mindless tasks until they died.
In the simulation, your consciousness never died. Long after your body had given out, taken from the simulation chamber, and cremated by Purgatory’s residents, your mind and soul would live on in the simulation.
Like the other residents her age, Charlotte herself had been in the simulation four times, on each promise of what waited for her if she worked hard for the next few years. And work hard she did.
Until her first moment in the simulation, Charlotte had struggled to find her purpose. The idea of the simulation had been abstract and uninspiring. She couldn’t imagine anything outside of Purgatory. But that all changed the moment the electrodes were attached to her temples and she had opened her eyes for her first yearly five minute dose of paradise.
Charlotte had woken up on the top of a lush tree that overlooked an entire city of wooden treehouses. An older woman had met her in the simulation and told her to ask for whatever she wanted. Anything. Overwhelmed, Charlotte chose something simple––a chocolate ice cream cone. She had never tasted one before, but had seen one in a picture book at school. Purgatory was generally a colorless, strict place. The ice cream cone had stood out to her in the book. It was until many years later that Charlotte had learned why––it was planted as a want for the residents. As something they could request in the simulation.
The woman had pulled the ice cream out from behind her back and given it to Charlotte. It was the most amazing thing she had ever tasted. So much better than the porridge and beans back in Purgatory.
As she licked her ice cream cone, the woman told her about the simulation and what it would mean to gain admin status. Upon graduating, the residents chose which utopian community they would live in for the rest of their lives, joining all the people who had graduated Purgatory before them. Most residents had one of three options.
The first option was Blamtis, the ocean community. The people there either lived on the beach or in the mountains overlooking the water. Blamtis was known for its fun and adventure. The community spent their days swimming, surfing, hiking, and climbing and nights at the beach club. It usually drew in the residents who were bored and longed for excitement.
The second community, Cotrobol, was urban. It was a large city with hovercrafts, innovation, galleries, free shopping, and coffee shops. The people who lived there were creative, intellectual, and had access to libraries and knowledge that was impossible to get in Purgatory. It was colorful, engaging, and drew in residents who craved something more substantive.
The final community was Veremity, the forest community (and the one that Charlotte had visited in her first simulation). The houses were built into the large sequoia trees and the town was connected through rope bridges. If you didn’t want to touch the ground, you didn’t have to. It was serene and peaceful, generally drawing in people who were burnt out and overworked after their seventeen long years in Purgatory. Half of the community was cold and always covered in a layer of snow, while the other half had temperate weather. The people who lived there were generally enlightened, calm, and pacifists.
The only problem was when they got tired of their peaceful, boring lives in the forest, they couldn’t leave. Once you had picked, you were stuck there for eternity.
Unless, of course, you had enough points.
Anyone who graduated with 400 to 900 points was only able to live in one world. 900 to 1075 granted you access to two worlds.
Having 1075 or higher––Admin status––meant that Charlotte would be able to jump between the three communities as she wished.
And it meant she would have access to the unknown, top-secret Admin community.
No one knew what was there until they got there. It was a top-secret paradise reserved solely for people with Admin status. Charlotte felt herself being pulled toward the unknown world. It was magnetic––she longed to know the secrets that only the Admins knew and explore the world that only the elite, the people who conquered and thrived in Purgatory, would get to see.
The only thing that Charlotte knew about being an Admin (besides her admittance into the unknown world) was that she would have the option of continuing her Monitor duties and keeping the peace in the simulation. Many Admins decided not to, instead living a life of luxury in whichever community they were in the mood for, but Charlotte knew she would never be able to give up her duties. She would make sure the worlds were running smoothly and report any incidents of people causing trouble. Sitting still did not appeal to her.
Of course there were rumors of the glories that the Admin community held. Some residents swore that they had heard Ms. Belmonte say it was up in the clouds, others were convinced it was a beautiful palace…but Charlotte didn’t trust any of the rumors. She just knew it would be worth it.
When Charlotte had finished her ice cream, she found a slide on the branch below her that plummeted through the treetops.
She was halfway down the slide when her five minutes were up.
And Charlotte had finally found her purpose. A fire was kindled in her heart. She finally had a longing. A goal. She wanted to have a role in the simulation rather than live mindlessly.
She spent the next five years collecting as many points as possible, going above and beyond to be the best resident. She could live the adventure she had always longed for with the power she had always wanted.
The only problem was her sister.
As Charlotte entered the room she shared with her identical twin Zandra, she found Zandra dancing around the boring, colorless room, singing off-key to some song she had never heard. It must’ve been something she heard in the simulation––there was no music in Purgatory.
The room held only two twin beds and two identical dressers. The walls were made of white cinder blocks and the single window, which was on Zandra’s side, looked over the courtyard, a corner of the endless desert visible just beyond.
The only thing that was special about their room was that there was no camera. Charlotte had earned enough points to choose her own roommate and have her camera taken out. It was a prize for the younger kids. Many tried to accumulate points just for those perks.
Zandra immediately stopped, her narrow blue eyes––the same icy blue as Charlotte––widening. She had the same pointed chin, freckled face, and slender build as Charlotte. Their only physical distinction was their hair. While Charlotte’s was auburn and always tied back, Zandra’s was unruly and had blonde streaks from when she had used the cleaning supplies to bleach it.
They also carried themselves differently. Charlotte’s chin was always up, her posture straight and body rigid. Zandra’s body, on the other hand, was always loose and relaxed. She could never sit still and, when she spoke, she would gesture excitedly.
“Char! Good, you’re back––”
“Why aren’t you at work?”
Zandra, like all the non-Monitors who were not considered intellectually gifted in their year, inspected and cared for the bodies of all the people in the simulation. Zandra’s particular job was teeth-brushing. Zandra barely had enough points to graduate. She was hanging by a thread.
“I told them I didn’t feel good,” Zandra responded nonchalantly, collapsing onto her plain twin-bed.
Charlotte didn’t bother hiding her anger, “What. The. Hell. We have ten days left before we graduate, dimwit! What are you doing?”
Zandra shrugged. Charlotte resisted the urge to shake her. The closer they got to graduating, the more Zandra seemed to misbehave. While her first visit into the simulation had given Charlotte (like seemingly every other person in Purgatory) a purpose, it had changed Zandra in a way Charlotte didn’t understand. Charlotte and Zandra had been inseparable up until that point, but after the first visit, Zandra began withdrawing, rebelling, and had become an overall nuisance for Charlotte.
It had gotten so bad that Zandra’s graduation was dangerously close to not happening.
Which severely affected Charlotte’s plans as her simulation could never be perfect if it did not include her sister.
Charlotte assumed that Zandra would choose Blamtis and, in Charlotte’s perfect world, Charlotte would visit her there everyday. But Zandra was constantly putting it at risk.
“You wouldn’t be feeling good if you’d been brushing old people’s teeth all day for the past eleven months,” Zandra argued. She glanced down at the deep teeth marks scarred onto her left hand from when one of the graduates had bit her. Honestly, it was the only good thing that had come out of her job brushing the teeth of the people in the simulation. It was very badass, if Zandra did say so herself.
”Well. I wouldn’t be feeling well.”
Zandra rolled her eyes.
“That’s beside the point, anyway,” Charlotte retorted, “Ten days and we’re out of here. You’ll never have to brush another tooth, including your own!”
Zandra looked away, frowning. The words weren’t comforting to her. “I can trust you, Char, right?” Zandra’s voice was shaky and uncertain. Charlotte’s anger instantly evaporated. She could feel Zandra’s anxiety in her gut, as if it were her own.
Charlotte sat down beside Zandra and took her hand, “I’m your sister before I’m a Monitor.” It was their deepest secret––when Monitors were chosen at fourteen years old, they swore an oath in front of all the residents to obey the Computer, Ms. Belmonte, the Head Monitor, and to report all incidents and protect the simulation above all else. If they were ever caught breaking the oath, they would never be permitted to graduate. It didn’t matter how many points they had.
But Charlotte meant it. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for Zandra, even if it meant that she wouldn’t graduate. That she wouldn’t live in paradise forever.
Not that it would ever come to that. In ten days, they would both be in the simulation. Charlotte would make sure of it.
But of course Zandra wasn’t going to make it easy. She never did.
“There’s a party happening on the other side of the fence. The boys have a Monitor helping them out. They’re going to take down the cameras and cut through the fence. One of them even stole some alcohol from the hospital.”
Charlotte blanched. She searched her sister’s face and saw nothing but pure determination. Charlotte felt sick––she knew that look. There was no stopping her.
But Charlotte wouldn’t go down without a fight, “No, Zandra. We have ten days––”
“Exactly! We’ve never even seen a man. This is our last chance––”
“We’ve seen them in the sim!”
“But nothing’s real in the sim!”
That had been the real problem for the past five years. For some reason, Zandra cared that the simulation wasn’t “real”.
“Zandra, you can’t do this,” Charlotte tried.
“I’ve already made up my mind,” Zandra replied, resolved, “I’m telling you…well, for two reasons, actually––”
“So I won’t go looking for you and inadvertently rat you out?”
“Well, there’s that, but…I want you to come.”
Charlotte raised her eyebrows. She had covered for Zandra on numerous occasions, but had never participated in the rebellions themselves. There was always an unspoken invitation, but Zandra had never voiced her desire for Charlotte to tag along, likely because she didn’t want to pressure Charlotte into joining.
This would be the greatest risk that Zandra had ever taken. If they were discovered on the other side of the fence, where the male warehouse was located and male residents were housed, Zandra would likely never graduate into the simulation. And she couldn’t––wouldn’t––allow Zandra not to graduate because of something as meaningless as a party.
“No. Tell me––what can I say to keep you from going? Anything, Zandra.”
“Nothing,” Zandra said. She gave Charlotte a hopeful look, “What can I say to get you to come?”
Charlotte sighed and stood up. She put her hand behind her back. Sister before Monitor, she reminded herself. She had to protect her sister.
Charlotte pulled a taser out of her belt and held it against Zandra’s arm. Zandra gave her a horrified look, lying motionless. Charlotte swallowed her guilt and grabbed some clothes to use as ties.
“I’m doing this because I love you, Zandra. I’m so sorry.”