After crawling through the tiny hole, colors that Mel did not expect embraced her: the blue sky littered with clouds sat on top of a lazy green forest and quiet orange town. Sky and trees—underground. She found herself gaping from the sight presented before her, and even squinted from the setting sun—an underground sun?—that glared down on her skin. They were on a cliff looking down onto a forest lined with small houses, which immediately sent chills down her spine from the nostalgia of leaving Sector 4 to come here. Farther out, the trees faded away into a small town with towering buildings and empty fields.
“Not what you expected?” the younger guard asked after following her in, smirking.
“No time to talk. Follow through,” the older guard said, standing next to a cleaner and sleeker elevator than the one they were in before. He pressed a button and sounded a soft ding along with the nearly silent door opening for them.
“Let’s go,” the younger man beckoned. “Your teacher is meeting you below.”
They step in together and descended, the calm music filling the empty conversation between them. The guards didn't seem to notice, but Mel was in awe of what she heard. Back in Sector 4, music could mainly be crafted by banging metal, shaking loose pebbles, or blowing through special wooden pieces. The sounds resurfacing from years of old memories were nothing like the cradling tune in the elevator, and instruments were not even around. She made a mental note to ask someone other than grumpy guards—perhaps the teacher he mentioned—to somehow borrow this stored, non-live music technology.
The elevator dinged and opened once more, and immediately a tall, middle-aged woman greeted her. “Melakae! Hello!” she said excitedly with wrinkles flaring up around her eyes as she smiled. As soon as Mel stepped out of the elevator, the woman gave her a tight hug then pulled out and nodded over to the guards. “Thank you, Karl. Thank you, Oliver. I can take it from here.”
So that’s what their names were, Mel thought as she looked back to wave them goodbye, but they already disappeared in the elevator going up.
The woman kneeled to capture eye contact with Mel, locking her big blue eyes onto hers.
“You probably have so many questions!” she said. “My name is Jeanie. I will be your academic instructor until you turn sixteen.” She paused and looked at Mel closely, studying her. “My records say you are thirteen now. Is that correct?”
“I think so? That sounds right,” Mel said without confidence. Not having been born in the Capital meant not keeping records, but somehow, it seemed like Jeanie knew this.
“I was also told that this is your first time in Sector 3, and you don't have family here.” She took a brief pause. “My responsibility is to not only teach you, but look after you, too. Everyone in the Capital will be your family.” She stood back up and smiled. “Let me show you around.”
As they walk down a trail through the woods, Jeanie continued to drone on and on about the school. “I’ll take you to the school and introduce you to your group,” she said. “The academic classes are team-based learning, and we've divided the classes into groups. I've put you in Group 1 so now all three groups have five people.”
Although Jeanie continued to talk about her class setup, Mel completely drowned out her voice and focused on her surroundings instead. The trees stood tall and gently waved in the wind, and as Mel pushed back her hair blown by the breeze, she wondered... how was there even wind? So many unanswered questions buzzed through Mel’s thoughts. She had witnessed entering a dingy elevator and crawling through a wet and dirty underground tunnel to get here, but it was like she was outside again. How can there be sun and sky and trees and people here? Maybe they weren’t underground. But if they weren’t, something felt off. The sun may be shining, but Mel only felt light hitting her skin. She didn’t feel the warmth or—
“Do you have good control over it?” Jeanie asked, interrupting Mel’s thoughts. She had completely drowned out her voice to the point that she now had no idea what she was asking.
Well, it was a yes or no question. “...Yeeees,” Mel said after a hesitation, hoping she answered that right. She suspected that it was better to answer blindly rather than listen to whatever she had to say again.
It seemed like she answered right. “Good!” Jeanie exclaimed. “Vale awakens around puberty, so you’re not a late bloomer. But the boys in your group haven’t awakened theirs yet, so you have something to show off.”
She continued to ramble about vale in the classroom, but Mel found herself once again fading out her voice and watched how, with each step, the trees started to melt into a civilization. They passed several small abandoned-looking houses made from brick, and then they reached a gated area with a spread-out building behind it. Remembering her view from the cliff, Mel realized that they had just reached the end of the woods and have not yet entered the town.
“Here we are,” Jeanie said, opening the gate. “This is the school you'll be attending. Classes are out of session now, but your group is here to meet you.”
They both slink in and head towards the entrance of the school where a group of four students in school uniform waited. As they walked closer, Mel noticed that they were her age, and they whispered and snickered at each other when they saw her. When they were close enough, Mel noted the four people: blonde boy, glasses boy, messy-haired boy, and braided girl.
“Group 1,” Jeanie called, “meet your new team member, Melakae.”
All four of them stared at her in awe, and Mel couldn’t help but wonder if it was because she looked so different in comparison to everyone else. She especially felt exposed with her darker complexion; the four of them stared at her like they had never seen someone who had darker skin than them. Except for the blonde boy, everyone she met so far had pearly skin and uniformly dark hair. It was as if they were never touched by the rays of the sun, even though Mel could feel the sun gently beating down on her now.
“Well,” Jeanie began, interrupting Mel’s thoughts and the group’s stares, “since your group is already here, I'm going to go ahead and get your bedroom ready.” She paused, giving Mel a long look. “And also get you fresh sets of clean clothes.”
“Melakae, huh?” the blonde boy said as Jeanie scurried away. “That’s a weird name.”
“Len!” scolded the boy with the glasses, elbowing him.
“What? I’m just saying. You can tell she’s from Sector 4.”
The messy-haired boy next to them leaned forward with his arms crossed, looking at Mel closely. “Is it true that you were raised by pulpas?”
All three of them looked up to her again, awaiting her response. Mel blinked in the sudden change in attention from them to her. Suddenly the conversation moved so fast, she hardly processed it. “You can call me Mel,” she said instead.
It didn’t take long for them to respond back. “Oooh, sweet accent!” the blonde boy said with a grin. “But I think I like Melakae better. It sounds cooler. Oh, and I’m Len, by the way. So, how do you spell Melakae? Is it—”
“My name is Alan,” the boy with the glasses interrupted Len before he could continue on another tangent. “Sorry my friends are weird.”
“So, Mel,” the messy-haired boy next to Alan said, skipping his own introduction, “were you raised by pulpas?”
Before Mel could respond, Alan rolled his eyes and gestured to the messy-haired boy, who was still leaning over and staring at Mel. “And this is my brother Alistair. Sorry he’s weird too.”
“Am not,” Alistair grumbled.
Len sneered. “Alan, you’re the weirdest one of us all. How many books do you read in a week? Like, who even reads books for fun?”
Mel watched the bickering between the three boys, awkwardly standing in front of them and wondering if she should say something. In the middle of their argument about who was the alpha male, she noticed the braided girl standing nearby who watched the boys in a daze and not contributing to their conversation. Mel immediately noticed how pretty she looked: her skin was fair but rosy, and her eyes stood out as a soft shade of a blue morning sky. Although she looked approachable, her facial expressions and lack of conversation seemed to suggest she was shy.
“Are all the boys like this?” Mel asked her, gathering her attention.
That seemed to snap her out of her train of thought. “Hm? Oh... no, it’s just these three that fight all the time.” She looked over at Mel and smiled sheepishly. “I’m Evaline, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”