“Enough talk," Mother said, putting on a new smile. "Let's go to the mall. I need to get me new makeup."
Mother backed the car out of the garage just as an absent-minded old lady, carrying a couple of heavy-looking supermarket bags, crossed the driveway. I expected Mother to honk and yell at her, so I was surprised at her reaction. She got out of the car and said to the woman: "Hello Mrs. Bontam, how are you today? May I help you with your groceries? Of course, it's no bother at all!"
I stood in the middle of the driveway, open-mouthed. Mother came back and said, "Let's go!" Her smile seemed genuine now. Of course, she'd have to wait until midnight to find out if her Rating had improved, although sometimes the ratings came earlier. She checked her makeup on the rearview mirror and turned on the Audiogrid.
“And today's advice for married couples," the woman host was saying, "is to save your daily credits. Don't uprate each other! You'll lose them in one shot instead of doing your civic duty of rating your friends and your neighbors. Democracy by Rating is not just a privilege; it's a responsibility. Thank you for listening and good ratings."
“I’ll downrate that bitch right away!” Mother said, tapping her Social Monitor. But when she remembered she had already used up her credits, she swore loudly. She was still cursing when we arrived at the mall’s crowded parking lot.
After going around several times, someone pulled out, and we headed for the empty space. But another car was doing the same thing. Mother swore again but with a smiling face this time. The other driver smiled back, gesturing for her to take it. Mother refused, smiling, pointing at the spot.
I became bored and got out of the car.
Mother found me in the food court. She said she had convinced the other driver to take the space, and then she found another one. She said her Rating should be back to average Green now.
We walked past what looked like an upscale makeup store. A man in a silver-gray uniform stood by the entrance as Pearls walked in. Pearls! Some I recognized: Videogrid celebrities. Others I had never seen before, politicians or judges for sure. Mother hesitated; she stopped, but then she turned around.
“Let’s go in!” she said.
“What? That’s for Pearls, can’t you see?”
“It isn’t illegal,” she said. “Besides, if we want to make it to Pearl rating, we have to behave like them.” She grabbed my hand and dragged me in.
The man at the door, so pleasant and accommodating to the Pearls who had just gone in, caught a glimpse of Mother's green Social Monitor and gave her a look of disdain. But he didn't stop us; we weren't criminals. Only Greens.
Mother browsed the displays and said, “They’re so beautiful!” But when she saw the price tags, she cursed.
An employee approached us. He said, with a severe smile, "Madam, this is a Pearl establishment, and as such, we mind our clientele. If you do not make a purchase, we may have to downrate you."
Mother's eyes opened wide. "Of course, of course," she said. "I just can't seem to decide. I need more time."
The man looked her up and down and left.
“I can't afford anything here," Mother said. "Damn it, this was a mistake!" We walked out in a hurry. Mother kept looking at her shoes and swearing under her breath.
When I went to bed that night, I heard her crying.
A dog's barking woke me up; I looked out the window. The neighbor across the street opened his front door and whisked the dog inside. "Can you believe that?" Mother said, entering my room. "Such a racket! She glanced at her Monitor, confirmed that her five daily credits had been issued. "I'm downrating that idiot, and I hope our neighbors do the same!" She tapped the screen, and her Monitor played a sad tune; her credits went down to four. Seemingly proud of performing her civic duty, she went back to bed.
Sirens blaring and lights flashing woke me up this time. Across the street, two Police cruisers blocked the driveway of the neighbors with the barking dog. I watched as four shock troops, clad in riot gear, kicked down the door and stormed the house. Moments later, they emerged, carrying the dog's owner, in his pajamas. The bright yellow of the man's Monitor caught my eye like a beacon even through the glare. Promptly, a policewoman removed the rating device from his wrist--as only Police could do without harming, possibly even killing the wearer--, and fitted him with a yellow wristband.
But that wasn't all. The man's family was dragged out to the street, too, even though his wife's Monitor showed a placid green. Another family, waiting in a vehicle, was handed keys to new locks an efficient locksmith had installed in the meantime. Newly uprated, I'd heard of them before in school: Lemons who helped catch other criminals were rewarded with Green status.
The Police took the man away; his wife and crying children were left in the street hugging each other while the dog barked at the departing cruisers.
I went back to bed thinking of my own Monitor because the Trials would begin in just a few hours; I couldn't fall asleep. Early next morning, I jumped out of bed, got dressed, and darted downstairs. Mother had prepared breakfast, but I wasn't hungry; I said goodbye and ran out, almost forgetting my backpack. Gloster came out of his house, buttoning his shirt.
“Will you downrate me?” Gloster said as we walked, faster than usual.
“Of course not! You’re my best friend! Will you downrate me?”
“Not if you uprate me first!" He laughed. We discussed our rating strategies and the people we would downrate: Pearls we hated, especially the shy, boring, stupid classmates we didn't like—the losers who kept to themselves in the corner of the classroom and didn't talk to anybody.
Before we knew it, we were there. I crossed the courtyard and went up the stairs to the observatory to find the Astronomer; he was only popular with a few students, those that were unpopular. I was the exception. And sure enough, at the top of the staircase bordering the observatory, I saw Nomi Dangreen talking to the old hag. Even though I liked the old man, once I got my Social Monitor, I’d never come back here: I didn’t want to downrate the gentle, wise man.
But there was something about this girl who also liked to sneak in here before and after class: her eyes, her sad, melancholic eyes.
“Ah, Anglus," the Astronomer said. "Just in time to talk about the big step you youngsters are about to take. A big step, big step."
I smiled and pretended to ignore Nomi, although I felt her eyes on me, checking me out. Awkward silence. Blood rushed to my face, my cheeks warmed up. Nomi giggled as the news came on the Audiogrid.
“Death row criminal Scarlet Zormer escaped and killed his former accomplice. For his service to society, the government has uprated him; he is now a Green and may be called Santrus Zormer again. The former Scarlet said he was grateful to our Dear Azure Leader and the Police."
The old man shook his head; his face looked tired, sad. He sighed.
"What's the matter?" I said. "Shouldn't you be happy for Mr. Zormer?"
“Hush!” he said. “Listen!”
“Former journalist Henlon Pastman has been downrated to Lemon and thus fired from this Audiogrid station. Lemon Pastman had openly criticized the programming of this station and was appropriately punished by society. His whereabouts are unknown, so our listeners should inform the Police if they spot him. Please turn to our Videogrid channel for a picture of him."
“What have we come to?" the Astronomer said. "And now they want you, children, to rate, too? Madness!"
The girl placed her hand on the Astronomer's shoulder. He grabbed it, smiled, and kissed it. I felt shivers. How could I come back here, other than for the rare astronomy class? I'd have to downrate the old man all the way to Scarlet! The news continued.
“Pearl Magnustrom, CEO of Acutech Components, has been condecorated by our Dear Azure Leader. Pearl Magnustrom used all his corporation's rating credits yesterday, downrating the journalist who cast doubt on his products' safety record. The Scarlet criminal is now on Condemned Row. These were Pearl Magnustrom's comments: 'Dear citizens, the power is in your hands. Use your Social Monitor to rid society of those who dare ignore its trends, those who attempt to subvert it, to challenge its order. The rewards are immeasurable. Just look at my example: born a Green, I am now a Pearl.'"
As usual, they ended the news on a positive note: "Having to use all your daily credits is stressing, I know. You can't save them for the weekend, you have to use them today! So what do you do? I like to browse social networks every morning and spend my credits right after a fresh coffee cup. It's a rewarding feeling going to work knowing I've already done my civic duty to keep undesirables out of society. That's how I earned my Pearl rating. And you will, too!"
For the first time, I saw the class full before the teacher showed up. There was a contagious, rollicking effervescence in the room. As if being in one of those ancient stadiums during the sporting events of the past. Now they were forbidden, of course; it was impossible to rate people in such mayhem. Where was the teacher? It was almost time!
She entered the classroom, pushing a cart that was loaded with Social Monitors. Behind her, two assistants brought in two extra carts.
“Quiet now,” she said. We shut our mouths. Nobody wanted to be downrated during the Trials. “When I call your name, come to the front.”
A police officer entered the classroom holding a Social Monitor key. Only the Police, itself immune to the Rating, could give--and take away--the Social Monitor's privilege.
“Gloster Kampus,” the teacher called out. With a smile from ear to ear, my best friend walked to the front, his bare left arm sticking out. The policewoman picked up a Monitor and swiped her key inches from the screen; it opened like the handcuffs she carried in her belt. Once the Monitor was on Gloster’s wrist, it snapped shut with a clank.
When the teacher called my name, I had to force myself to walk calmly--I was shaking with anticipation. The policewoman looked me in the eyes but said nothing. My Monitor was so slick! Heavy, but I'd get used to it.
After the last student got her Monitor, the teacher announced, “Remain still while your Social Monitors are granted student access to the Grid. Do not be afraid if they vibrate a little; you will not feel pain.” She nodded to the policewoman, who pulled out one of her many devices from her belt and tapped something on it.
My Monitor rattled, but, like the teacher had said, it didn't hurt. Then something happened, something that took our collective breath away. Every Monitor lit up and cycled through all the bright colors it was capable of displaying. It was a beautiful spectacle; the room glittered with all the colors of the rainbow.
“As of this moment, the Trials have begun,” the teacher said. “Let us go through the basics: the colors of the Social Monitor.”
She explained in great detail what we already knew. Still, we paid attention as if our lives depended on it--which they did, actually. She called Nomi to the front. The sad-eyed girl looked terrified.
“From lowest to highest,” the teacher said, “recite the ratings.”
“Enough!” The teacher pierced Nomi with her stare. “Class, this is the perfect opportunity to exercise your civic duty for the first time.” She got up, pressed the palm of her right hand against her heart, and chanted, “Democracy by Rating!”
“Democracy by Rating!” we echoed.
“Now rate!” she ordered.
I had never felt such power at my fingertips. It itched. I was the master, the judge, the executioner of the silly girl who stood scared at the front of the classroom. This girl had embarrassed me earlier in the observatory. In my anxiety, I tapped the wrong icon, uprating her. Damn it! I tried to correct my mistake immediately, but my Monitor chimed in anger--you couldn't uprate and then downrate someone so soon.
My blunder didn't help her Rating, though: the teacher displayed it on the wall view for all to see. Nomi had suffered, except for my innocent uprating, a ruthless beating. It was so unforgiving that her Monitor switched from Green to yellow. She held back her tears, composing herself--another round of Rating would've turned her Social Monitor red.
The teacher sent the unlucky girl back to her seat and called another name: "Gloster Kampus!" My friend marched to the front resolutely. "Tell us all the colors of the Social Monitor and what each one represents."
“Scarlet," Gloster began, "is the lowest Rating, reserved for criminals on death row. Lemon, the next level, means the individual is outside society's current, acceptable trends. Green is the most common Rating when a person fits in with society's expectations. Pearl is awarded to those who have made an outstanding contribution to our metropolis, such as Videogrid actors, politicians, and the Social Monitor's builders. Finally, there is Azure. The highest anybody has ever reached; a lifetime rating that cannot be removed. Only our Dear Azure Leader has achieved it, and he will enjoy it for the rest of his life."
The class broke into cheers and applause. "Democracy by Rating!" the teacher said. From the rapid tapping, our Monitors rattled like machine guns. My uprate was intentional this time, not just because Gloster had nailed it; he was my best friend.
“Your rating tells the absolute truth," the teacher said. "We shall always acknowledge it, we shall always respect it, for it is without fault. Its creator, our Dear Azure Leader, realized this early on. That is the reason he declined a rating above Azure, for there lies perfection. One day, one triumphant individual will attain perfection. That must be your sacred goal to reach the highest Rating: White Apex."
Mother drove me crazy that evening. I couldn't enjoy the tasty protein bars she had so skillfully unwrapped from the aluminum foil without losing a single morsel to the packaging.
“Well? Are you getting your Monitor?”
“What’s this?” I said, showing her my left wrist.
“Very funny," she said. "Are you going to keep it after Friday? Are you confident you'll pass the Trials? You know we can't afford to get by only on my account. You have to pull your own weight, young man." She showed me her Rating, which, until I got my permanent Social Monitor, would be my Rating too. Green, but dangerously close to Lemon. "That bastard from the store must have downrated me," she said, pouring herself another glass of that fetid, smelly, cloudy liquid she drank when she was in a bad mood.
In the real world, I'd typically have to wait until midnight to find out my Rating. During the Trials, I got it throughout the day. It disturbed me, and not because I jumped every time the Monitor beeped: I was going down, approaching Lemon. I'd have to do something about it tomorrow.
“Why is this happening to me?” I asked Gloster in the classroom. “I’m nice to everybody, and I uprate people often.”
“Perhaps you’re not uprating the right people,” he said. “I’m a solid Green now, on my way to Pearl,” he grinned and showed me his Monitor.
“Anglus Mantran,” the teacher said, “come to the front.”
She berated me. "This is a fine example of a society's misfit who must be punished," she said, pulling up my arm and exposing my beeping Monitor. It had just turned yellow, and I couldn't help but notice that half the class--Gloster included--was tapping their Monitors like mad people. Just like my previous Green Rating, my current Lemon status began to drop.
“Enough!” the teacher yelled. “There will not be a Scarlet under my watch!" She punched something on her desk terminal, and my Monitor miraculously turned Green. Before she sent me back to my chair, she said, "Anglus Mantran, you will stay after the class concludes."
Gloster ignored me for the rest of the day. When the bell rang, he jumped from his chair and took off. The teacher came to my desk, with her cold eyes fixed on me.
“You have a problem," she said. "You are too generous with your ratings. Have you not realized that instead of punishing your classmates, you are enabling them, giving them ammunition against you? If you uprate people for trivial things, they will think you are weak. They will downrate you, certain that you will not reciprocate. I am issuing a warning to your parents; I want it back tomorrow, signed, or I will report you to the Police."
I walked home angry, confused, and alone. What did the teacher mean when she said I had to punish my classmates? Why would I downrate someone for holding the door open for me? Why would I downrate someone for telling a joke? Why would I downrate someone for helping an old lady cross the street? The only downrate I thought was warranted was to that horrible kid who kicked the dog during recess. Poor furry thing cried until Nomi picked it up and comforted it. So I uprated her right away. Were those kids laughing at me also downrating me? Gloster was with them, I remember now: he was laughing too. The only one who didn't laugh was Nomi.
As I turned the corner, I saw my mother arguing with Gloster's. My friend was home already, peeking out the window until his mother went inside and pulled the curtains.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“That bitch was gloating that her stupid son’s trending better than you. She said you turned into a Lemon today! I told her to shut her mouth and stop spreading lies about you, or I would downrate her.”
Now I was really terrified to tell her about the warning. But I couldn’t go back to school without her signature. I went to my room and waited.
She had the Audiogrid on in her bedroom, some Pearl talking about his cat’s funeral. Life was easy for Pearls. Everything they did and said pleased everyone, and they got good ratings in return. Of course, Greens rating Pearls wasn’t the same as Greens being rated by Pearls: their ratings had a much more significant effect.
I peeked out the window. There was a dark figure across the street, popping in and out of the alley between two houses: a man wearing a heavy overcoat. He seemed to notice me and retreated back into the alley. If this wasn't the Trials, and my Monitor actually worked on anybody other than my classmates, I'd downrate him immediately for startling me. And there he was again, emerging from the shadows. I couldn't see the color of his Monitor because he wore long sleeves. I thought hiding one's Rating was illegal.
Mother turned off the Audiogrid. I waited until I didn’t hear a sound coming out of her bedroom, then I tiptoed downstairs, turned on her Grid Pad, and combed through her files--I knew I could forge her signature. There was a folder with documents from when Mother and Father moved into this house, right after the Police dispossessed some Lemons and assigned it to them. It took me many tries to perfect it, but in the end, the signature on my teacher’s letter looked identical to Mother’s.
I closed the file, but the name of another document in the list caught my attention: Divorce Forms. Divorce? Neither Mother nor Father had been married before. And Mother never remarried after Father's death. I tapped the file and had to cover my mouth to stifle a scream: it said that Mother had divorced Father thirteen years ago--on the same day Father was killed by some Scarlets.
The noise of footsteps coming down the stairs made me duck under the desk, just as the living room lights came on. A bottle touched a glass. Mother dimmed the lights and settled on the sofa. As quietly as I could, I returned everything to the filing cabinet and waited until she fell asleep.
I barely managed to maintain Green status by downrating the weak students, those who didn't talk much, who kept their gaze down, who were scared of the others. Easy targets. Gloster began to speak to me again. His mother had told him that it was imperative who one associated with. You shouldn't be seen in the company of a Lemon.
In the back of my mind were the divorce documents. How could Father have died on the day he divorced Mother? I'd have to find out. But not this week; it was hard enough as it was. And the worst came on Friday, the last day of the Trials. The teacher said there was one final test; we had to prove we could put the Rating above all else. We got paired up. She had observed all of us, so she knew who our friends were. Gloster and I became one such pair.
“Your Social Monitors have two credits left,” the teacher said. “You will use them to rate your teammate. You may not talk to your teammate; that will automatically fail you. We shall begin in one minute.”
The same policewoman from Monday returned accompanied by two others, all three of them in riot gear. “Do not be alarmed,” the teacher said. “It is for your own safety. The officers are here to remove the Social Monitors from those of you who do not pass the test.”
What should we do? I was about to give Gloster two thumbs up to signal we should uprate each other, but the officers paced the classroom; one stood beside us, staring through his helmet visor.
“Rating is obligatory," the teacher said. "Not Rating means automatic failure. As in real life, you must spend all your daily credits. Thirty seconds left!"
Gloster was my best friend. We had promised we'd uprate each other when we got our Social Monitors. I uprated him twice.
“Time!” the teacher said. “Raise your left arms!”
Our Monitors sparkled in a combination of green and yellow, primarily green, like Gloster's. My device was beeping, flickering an accusing yellow. But I wasn't the first one to get assaulted. The shock troops dragged two students away--Nomi was one of them. They came back for more from the front row. One of them, kicking and screaming, was sprayed with something so acrid that it stung my eyes, even though I was at the back of the classroom.
Then they came for me. I turned my head to look at Gloster as they marched me out. He was smiling.
In the windowless room where they tossed me, I found the other Lemons. Some wept. Behind me came the teacher: "You should be ashamed of yourselves!" she yelled. "You are not fit for society and will have to wait one year for another chance. The Police will issue wristbands that will expose your Rating. As punishment for failing the Trials, you will not be able to rate. Of course, you will still be rated by the decent members of society."
The policemen installed the tight, cumbersome wristbands quickly. “Attempting to remove those earns you instant Scarlet,” one said. “The last rating you’ll ever get.”
“Now get out of my school!” the teacher said. “When you are back on Monday, I hope you will have reflected on what you need to accomplish to stay Green. You can thank our Dear Azure Leader for this gift.”
Anguish was the most common look on my fellow Lemons' faces, but mine was that of quiet shock. Gloster had downrated me! He was outside, waiting for me; he handed me his heavy backpack and said, "Take it and keep your mouth shut." He tapped something on his Monitor, and his freshly activated, Democracy by Rating device sang like a bird. I was so envious! I couldn't get another shot at it until next year, and that was assuming I was still a Green then. But I wouldn't be unless I carried Gloster's backpack.
“Hurry up!” he said, walking faster and faster. “I can’t wait to show it to Mother! Move it! You want me to spend my credits on you?”
Hauling two backpacks wasn't my biggest problem. How would I tell Mother? As I turned around to close the front door, I caught a glimpse of the man in the overcoat again. Should I report him to the Police? Perhaps it was in my best interest not to; a Trials' reject should keep a low profile. What if the man had a perfect reason to be there? I'd be downrated to Lemon.
Mother wasn't home, so it gave me time to calm down and think about how I'd break the news to her. But as I sat in the living room with my head in my hands, I remembered the divorce documents—a welcome distraction. I logged on to the Grid Pad and opened the form. There was no question about it. Mother divorced Father the same day he was killed by Scarlets. I was determined to ask her about it; maybe she'd go easier on me.
Mother burst in that evening, making me leap from the couch where I had fallen asleep. She smelled of smoke and alcohol, and the top of her red dress was ripped. But she didn't look worried; she was laughing. "Well?" she said, holding on to the furniture. "Show it to me!"
I told her.
“Why you!" she said, slashing the distance from the foyer to the living room couch so quickly for her drunken state that it astonished me. She tripped and fell by my feet. When I tried to help her up, she slapped me across the face twice, back and forth. "You imbecile! Do you realize what this means? We're finished! That bitch next door will turn us into Lemons, and they'll take away our house! They'll arrest us and make us do Pearls' bidding! I hate you, I hate you!" She went down on her knees and vomited.
“Don’t you dare touch me!” she said when I put my hand on her head. She was furious. “You’re just like your father, damn him too! Why is this happening to me? All I ever wanted was to be a Pearl!”
I couldn’t believe how fast my emotions could flip. I went from self-pity and sadness to a fury I had never felt before. “What about this?” I said, dumping the Grid Pad in front of her. “You divorced Father?”
She didn’t seem embarrassed. “And you should thank me I did! If I hadn’t, we would’ve turned to Lemons long ago! Your stupid father was just as weak, never downrating anybody. The only good thing he did was leave when I told him I’d downrate him all the way to Scarlet.” She got up and tossed the Grid Pad away. “And now,” she said, sinking her index finger in my chest, “I hope you rot, too. Get out of here before I call the Police! Out!”
I ran upstairs and piled up furniture by my bedroom door; I'd never been so afraid. Was that my mother or some wild beast out to devour me?
“Out, I said! Out!”
My left arm vibrated, then I heard an alarming beep; my wristband turned yellow.
“Out, you bastard! I’m going to apologize to our neighbors and beg them to downrate you too!”
Tears dripped on the clothes I was hastily stuffing in my school backpack. I opened the window, threw the backpack out, and then climbed down. The still night was disturbed by the sirens, getting closer--there was a Lemon in the neighborhood. My best friend’s bedroom lights came on. I crossed the street and disappeared into the dark alley, stopping for just a moment to catch my breath. Then somebody grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth with a gloved hand.
“Don’t be afraid,” the man in the overcoat said. “Come with me!”
He led me through alleys, away from the approaching sirens, to a waiting vehicle with two people in it. Both wore long-sleeved overcoats that hid their Monitors. The driver accelerated, and I sank in the backseat.
It was the first time I had left the metropolis and ventured where no Green ever dared: Lemon's territory. They drove me to a large building--a barn, they called it. Guards posted outside escorted us in. Everybody was wearing overcoats, so I couldn't see their Monitors.
Inside, there were cots with people sleeping on them. "Be silent," the man who had whisked me away said and led me to a back room.
“Who are you?” I said.
“Your father." He removed his overall, exposing worn-out blue pants and a dirty shirt that might have been white once. Then he told me about the last thirteen years. He showed me pictures he'd taken of me, playing with Gloster in the street.
“Even though you didn’t know it, I was always nearby,” he said.
“But why?” I cried. “Why did you leave me?”
“We weren’t ready to bring our children into the rebellion, not back then,” he said, looking down. “I’m sorry. Your mother and I weren’t getting along. One day I’ll tell you all about it. We’ve got little time now.”
It finally dawned on me that nobody here wore neither Social Monitors nor rating wristbands.
As if reading my mind, Father said, "We got rid of them a long time ago, with a key we smuggled out of the city. Messy business: dead Lemons, dead policemen. We had to; they would've found us otherwise. Even this far from the metropolis, they could still track us. Now they must think we're dead, especially them.” He pointed at two crazy-looking old men hunching over a table in one corner of the room. One had long, gray, disheveled hair, and the other one wore thick glasses over his enormous nose.
“They’re scientists who used to work for the corporation that built the Social Monitor,” Father said.
One of the scientists approached me and said, "Your arm, please." He swiped a key, and my wristband split open; the old man caught it before it dropped to the floor.
“We've found a way to change the Grid," the long-haired scientist said, as the one with glasses laid my wristband on his worktable and plugged a bunch of thin, flexible, shining tubes into it. Light cycled through them in all the colors of the rainbow.
“We need you, son,” Father said. “You’ve got student-level access to the Grid. None of the checks and balances for regular citizens apply to you. Nobody will suspect you.”
“You want to kill the Grid?” I asked.
“Not at all!" the man working on my wristband said, looking up as his glasses fell on the table. "Democracy by Rating must stay! We just want the Rating to go back to its origins when only mature, educated people were issued Social Monitors. This business of giving them away to teenagers? Madness! It'll unravel the fabric of society! Youngsters are easily swayed to rate the wrong way. Just look at all the Pearl journalists downrated to Scarlet! This cannot continue!" the man said, his eyes dancing wildly.
They needed me. Fresh from the Trials, a punching bag for my classmates who had been issued their Social Monitors. My wristband would be at the receiving end of their hate or recompense, depending on the services I provided to them. My wristband, now being rigged by the scientists who had betrayed the corporation. Many years ago, they said, when the Grid was called the Internet, the Rating didn’t exist. It was the owner of the biggest Internet information aggregator--known as our Dear Azure Leader now--who convinced the government that democracy was flawed. Democrazy, as he called it, didn't serve humanity. Or something like that--it didn't make much sense to me. I was more interested in my hacked wristband and what I could do with it. Or, better yet, how it could help me stay Green.
“The Rating is the gospel," the big-nosed hag said, nodding heavily. "Everybody, especially the Police, will always obey the Rating, no questions asked. So will the teachers and every member of society.”
“But there is a problem,” he said, “The Azure Leader”--he didn’t say dear--is designing a new Social Monitor, one that will control your thoughts. He is testing it on unsuspecting victims. Only by accident did we find out about it."
They didn’t want to destroy the Social Monitor network, the Grid of all Things as they called it. They loved the Rating.
Why was Father doing this? Even after the horrible way Mother treated me, what she called me, I missed her. In her own way, she had taken care of me all these years. I wasn't sure Father was there for me like he claimed. Somebody else could've taken the pictures he showed me. Did I even trust him?
“Please, son,” Father said. “You must listen to them.” He pointed at the old men. “Go ahead,” he said to them, “tell him what he has to do.”
The big-nosed man fitted the wristband on my arm. “These tiny controls at the bottom slide out, see?” he said, showing me how to pull out the concealed addition to my wristband. “Press this one to uprate yourself; this one uprates the nearest person; and this one,” he said, looking at me in the eye, “this one is for when you get to the observatory. But the Astronomer will take care of that.”
“The Astronomer?” I yelped. “What does he have to do with this?”
There was a surprised look in the old man. He turned to Father. "You did not tell him?"
“There was no time,” Father said.
“The Astronomer is our man inside,” the scientist said. “He’s got equipment hidden in the observatory that will give this wristband unimpeded access the Grid, and then-”
I interrupted him. “You said I can uprate myself?”
“Yourself and others," he said. "But only temporarily, to get out of immediate danger. However, once the Astronomer plugs you into the Grid, whatever Rating you issue will-"
Father coughed repeatedly. Strange, I thought, because he looked healthy. "You must help us, Anglus," he said when he recovered. "We must make the Rating fair again."
I didn't believe in this rebellion--the Police and the government were powerful. And I didn't believe Father either. But I said yes because I wanted to get back at Gloster. I'd make him suffer for what he did to me.
It was early Monday morning when I sneaked into the house. I put on my school clothes and went to Mother's bedroom. She was sleeping, reeking of alcohol, so I shook her shoulder.
She woke with a startle. "You! I'm calling the Police!" she said, reaching for the gridcom on her bed table. But when I showed her my wristband, it fell from her hand. She rubbed her eyes and then opened them wide and looked at my wristband again as if she was witnessing a rock turning into gold.
My wristband was a flashy Pearl.
“Oh, my! When? How?” She jumped from the bed and hugged me. “Anglus! You made it! I love you!”
She believed everything I told her; about my covert work for Pearls, about the secret societies. She would've believed I was the son of the Dear Azure Leader if I had said so. All she cared about was the allure of the Pearl rating I had been gifted with. And still no Monitor on my arm, just the wristband. Apparently, that thought didn't cross her mind.
“We must show it to the bitch next door! Let’s go right now!”
I explained that my employers had told me to keep it secret. I tapped the bottom of my wristband for good measure--where the concealed controls had been rigged--and uprated Mother three times. Her Monitor chimed thrice, and her face, though tortured by last night's hangover, brightened. "My Rating just went up to the top of Green! Did you-"
After that little demonstration, she was more than willing to keep quiet about it. I told her that if she quit drinking and stopped dating strange men, I might be able to uprate her further.
Time for school. I knocked on Gloster's door, and his mother opened it. She looked me up and down, fixing her eyes on my green wristband--I had turned it down a level. "Gloster will be right out," she said, handing me his backpack.
“Where were you all weekend long?” Gloster said. “I had to do homework by myself! You’re making it hard for me to keep you Green.”
I babbled something about a relative in hospital, and he didn’t ask any more questions. He kept checking his Social Monitor, like everybody else in the street. My hatred toward him grew with each step. “Hurry up!” he said.
In the classroom, the teacher segregated us: Social Monitor wearers at the front, wristband-slaves at the back. I sat beside Nomi. With those sad eyes, she looked prettier than ever. For a moment, I forgot the reason for me being here, so taken was I by the purity and innocence of those beautiful eyes.
“Today is your first day as functioning members of society,” the teacher said to the Social Monitor crowd. “But, as our Dear Azure Leader once said, with great power comes great responsibility. Consider how you shall spend your daily credits, and do it wisely. Remember, your goal shall always be the betterment of our society. Do not feel pity, do not feel compassion; those are traits of the weak. Do not let those unworthy of the Social Monitor reach your level.
They turned around and looked at the lot of us with fire in their eyes and wicked grins in their faces. Our wristbands vibrated. Some of us became Lemons, and this time, it was for real--we’d have to work extra hard this week to get back to Green.
Except for Nomi. Her wristband had just turned red.
Picking up her gridcom, the teacher said, "This is an emergency! There is a Scarlet in the school! Everybody remains seated until the Police arrive. Especially you!” she said to Scarlet Dangreen.
I wasn't going to let Nomi die. Taking her hand, I said, "Do you trust me?" With tears rolling down her face, she nodded. We got up and ran to the front of the classroom. The teacher blocked the doorway, but both of us pushed her, and she fell backward.
We dashed up the spiraling staircase and barricaded ourselves inside the observatory. “What took you so long?” said the nervous Astronomer.
“Help us pile more stuff!" I yelled. He stopped asking questions and began to move furniture. When the Police banged on the thick, heavy, solid wooden door, I was confident that it would hold for the next few precious seconds I needed.
“The wristband!" the Astronomer shouted, pushing buttons, and a host of weird-looking machines I had always thought had something to do with his telescope dinged to life. "Quick, give it to me! I must load the virus!"
But I didn't listen to him. Nomi's life was more important than the old man's plan to infiltrate the Grid and open a rating algorithm hole. "Nomi!" I said. "Put your wristband next to mine!"
I tapped the hidden controls as the observatory's door came off its hinges. But when the shock troops stormed in, they stopped, as if mandated by the Dear Azure Leader himself. They removed their helmets, and with open mouths and eyes about to pop out of their sockets, they stared at Nomi as the Astronomer covered his mouth, stifling a scream.
Because her wristband was gleaming in the purest, most immaculate color ever to grace a citizen's wrist. And it was coming from a girl who had been a Scarlet moments ago. But now, her wristband displayed the one Rating higher than that of the Dear Azure Leader himself; the sum of all the colors of the rainbow: White Apex.
Perfection. And since my wristband had full access to the Grid, her status would be permanent.
Not knowing how to react, the riot police dropped to their knees. The girl, still scared, looked at me as if searching for guidance. But I had none to give, for I was full of hate. She didn't have any hate in her, though. No envy, no ill-thoughts toward her fellow citizens.
She took a step forward, then slowly walked past the rows of riot police crowding the observatory. We all followed her down the spiraling staircase. The rest of the students and the teacher had assembled in the courtyard and watched, in utter amazement, the Police escorting the most powerful human being in the metropolis.
“Please give me the key," she said to the same policewoman who had fitted the wristband on her. With trembling hands, the woman obeyed. Nomi approached the nearest Lemon and removed his wristband. To gasps of incredulity, she repeated the procedure until all Lemons had bare wrists. And then she moved on to the Social Monitor crowd. Most remained still as she gently relieved them of the shackles they didn't know they had.
Then came Gloster’s turn.
Like the bully he was, he pushed her away. Big mistake; the policewoman grabbed him by the neck and screamed into his ear, "Do as the White Apex says, or I'll arrest you!"
With a gentle smile, Nomi removed Gloster's Social Monitor. My former friend collapsed on the stone floor and wept. But Nomi wasn't done; she had one more person to liberate. Under the policewoman's watchful eye, the teacher offered her arm to Nomi, mumbling something inaudible. When the sad-eyed girl tossed the last Social Monitor on the pile she had built up in the courtyard, the teacher said, "White Apex, what will my color be now?"
The girl lifted her hands and said, "Look up."
The teacher looked up; we all did. Every freed human being looked up at the deep blue afternoon sky.
A smiling Nomi said, “That is your new color.”