Selflessness to defy egotism
Love to defy abhorrence
Empathy to defy apathy
Fortitude to defy disquietude
Cognition to defy ignorance
But most importantly, above all:
Defiance to defy the consent they demand.
– A well-known rebellion recitation originating from the civil war
My black, leather school shoes clip loudly against the worn tar of the road, as I run towards the crumbling school building. I pass several Vigilum patrolling the streets, searching for anyone willing to break one of the Regimen’s precious laws. I run with my head down, as every other person does, out of forced respect for the officers that ensure the law is upheld. Meeting the eye of a Vigilum classifies you as Defiant, and you will be prosecuted under one of the multiple laws that the Regimen created after they took over from the previous Government. The first thing they did was abolish the democracy system. The island of Vetus-Fortis, renamed from the big island of Hawaii, is now a complete totalitarian state. A state protected by the countless laws the president has created, to prevent the rebel group from rising up against them as they had done eleven years ago.
I am late again, because I couldn’t catch the local bus fast enough. None of the children from my town own a car. That’s simply another luxury that cannot be afforded.
I can feel the strain in my heels as I climb up the stone stairs from walking such a far distance. But I don’t feel the weight of the exhaustion the way I used to in the beginning. I’m used to it now. A few dry leaves crinkle and crack under my shoes like pieces of broken glass. The shoes aren’t as tough as I would like. I traded them for some scrap metal my father collected while working in the metal factories, because that was all I had at the time. The shoes are the only things that I can call mine, though – my whole outfit belongs to the Regimen. Here, in Seni, the sixth Tract, we wear a standard uniform. All the same. The shoes must match the outfit – the grey, silver jumpsuit to match the metal factory buildings. That’s the only rule. They don’t provide us with the shoes because they’re too expensive to make for all of us. A waste of money.
I pause before I enter the glass doors. I take a deep breath, and then I walk briskly into the busy corridors full of students hurrying across the corridors, rushing to wherever they need to be. Someone shoves me hard from behind, but when I turn, I’m not quick enough to catch sight of who it was. Maybe it was just a mistake – I tell myself. Maybe. But I know that it wasn’t. The children from Seni are always picked on, laughed at, mocked and teased. Most of the poorer students are from the poorer Tracts, mainly the factorial, agricultural, and quarries – the sixth, second, and seventh Tracts – although only students from Seni and Tribus attend this school. I push through the streams of people and I slip into the darkened History class, where I slide into a seat near the back of the class and try to become as invisible as possible. This way, I can almost supress the tiny voice at the back of my head urging me to speak out and stand up for my beliefs – something utterly illegal – as I know it will only cause trouble for me; trouble I don’t need. If you are caught speaking out of turn, you are taken into custody. No one knows what happens to you. You disappear. Some say they transfer you to another Tract with a new name and a new identity and a new life, with no recollection of your previous life. They say you forget because they wipe your memories clean with a Voider – the operations created by the Regimen to remove memories. But none of this is confirmed. All we – the people Watched every single day – can do, is hope. Hope that we aren’t pulled away from our homes, lives, taken away on account of an illegal activity performed unknown to us. It’s why I always keep my mouth sealed shut: I know that if I begin to talk, I won’t be able to stop. It wouldn’t do any good to anyone.
I glance out of the window, and my green eyes catch the distractingly beautiful gold tint in the leaves outside the classroom window. It looks almost like someone has taken a cloak woven from the most vibrant orange, yellow, red and golden colours, and draped it all around the town, enveloping everything under it, and spreading a rich autumn complexion. Autumn is the only pretty thing in this town. A slight breeze lapping against the leaves and through the tall branches catches my eye. That’s when I notice just how few leaves and living plants there actually is. Dead. More than half of the plant life here is dead. Poisoned by the poisonous fumes and liquid thrown out daily – the waste created from the factories this tract runs. But not everything the Regimen intends to kill dies. There are others who have joined to stand against the Regimen. They are the ones that no-one dares to even so much as look at or mention. Communicating with the rebels means death. Their blood red posters scatter the town; dripping off boards and peeling off walls and sign posts like sticky honey – a sickly reminder of how they refuse to accept their defeat during the civil war, and of how they simply won’t accept death as their reality.
I turn away from the window just as the educator assigned to this lesson walks into the classroom. I stare at the plump, tall woman in front of me. Her hair is twisted and braided, and then piled on to her head in an old-fashioned manner. She wears a matching pink pencil skirt and blouse – quite the old fashion too. Her shoes are a pink colour that is about two shades darker than the skirt, and they have a tall heel that cannot be comfortable. There is a hot pink colour added to her thin lips, and she stares at the class with a beady eye. I hate this woman. I think to myself, she is one of the richer ones – one of the ones who would die for the Regimen.
In this country, there are two kinds of people. The ones who know the cruelty of the Regimen and choose to turn the other cheek, and the ones who will die trying to end the suffering of others. There are the richer people, and the poorer ones. The richer ones have everything to lose, and the others don’t. For the poorer ones, there is almost nothing left. Their houses are crumbling, and most of their family members are dead. I know because I am one of them. I’ve lost enough to know their pain.
“Good morning.” The plump woman calls out in a tight voice, shattering my trail of thought. A few people mutter an answer. I don’t. “Let me ask a question; what makes a country great?”
And that’s how it always starts. It’s how every single lessons always begins, no matter which educator conducts it. The answer is always the same. The educators are expected to drill it into each child’s head so that they believe nothing else, and today is the day they all find out of they’ve done a good enough job. Today, with the lessons Watched – tracked by the Regimen – they have to be extra careful to get it all right.
“A great country is one ruled by control and a standardized system of rules put into place to guide us and navigate our paths in the way that helps us achieve the best we possibly can.” That’s what the class answers, everyone at the same time in perfect harmony so that it sounds flawless. Almost too flawless for my liking.
“We all know what today’s lessons will be about.” The woman calls out. “Today we are revising the summarised history of Vetus-Tenebris, and how we have all evolved and learned from the mistakes made by the people of the past.” I almost want to laugh. It sounds as if she’s read that straight off of a ‘Believe in your leaders!’ advertisement placed on television by the Regimen.
“How did it all start?” She asks us, but she doesn’t wait for an answer. “Let’s all flash back to a time of great unhappiness and anger in the world. Of a time when there was simply no control.” She pauses. “We all know of the Before – of when the citizens under the lead of a weak government revolted. We know of the riots and the excessive violence that ensured, and how the government was not able to control its people that had turned against them.” She pauses again, but only the slide the pictures of the riots onto the projected computer screen with the flick of her finger over the blue flickering screen hovering in mid-air. I watch the eyes of the other students drink in the images. I watch the disgust and revolt spread across their faces like the rising temperature of a heat wave – the kind that begins to seep through every crevice in each house, slowly – at the sight of the citizens ripping apart everything in their paths. In the photographs, children our age wearing white masks with cruel-looking grins plastered across them and exaggerated eyebrows, burn down buildings and light homemade bombs in various forms, before throwing them towards what must have been the government buildings with looks of loathing and hatred that burns brighter than the flames they create ever could. Studying their resentful expressions almost makes me think the root of their anger – the thing worth fighting for – had been forgotten by most. It looks almost as if what could have become a struggle worth writing into history, turned out to be a waste of time – something without meaning. That anger had gotten the best of them; devoured their sense of reasoning. That’s what really bothers me.
“This is what Hawaii, the previous name of our country, faced.” The woman calls out, her voice echoing throughout the room, filling the silence around us. “This is where the country would have ended, if it had not been for one man. One man alone saved us from complete destruction.” She looks around the classroom, meeting each pair of eyes directly, holding their gaze. “Can anyone tell me the name of this hero?” she points to a girl seated two rows ahead of me, to a girl dressed in a sandy brown jumpsuit who is clearly from Tribus.
“A brave and courageous man named Edward the Prosperous arrived from England and saved the country of Hawaii – our country. He made several changes after he overthrew the government. He changed the country’s name to Vetus-Tenebris, a word deprived from an ancient language called Latin, along with all of the towns and city names as well. He saved us. And to him, we will be forever grateful.”
The teacher beams proudly. The girl has gotten it just right. She’s remembered the exact quote repeated by all of the educators, and she even seems to believe it herself. There’s just one thing they’re leaving out about Edward the Prosperous, something my father made sure to remind me of. Not only did he change everything the people of Hawaii had known and took everything they held dear away, but he killed most of them due to his paranoia and phobia of disease, and due to the civil war, many had contracted various diseases. He killed them even if they weren’t sick, when he orchestrated the mass slaughters.
“And then, what proceeded after that?” The woman points to the boy seated behind me.
He smiles. He’s glad to have been chosen. “This is the most important part.” The boy begins. “This is when Edward the Prosperous created the Regimen – the new governmental party prepared to lead the country after his death.”
The educator smiles a satisfied smile. She’s convinced the whole class that this is the truth, and she knows she’ll be safe in front of the cameras watching the lesson. Well, almost the whole class.
“What about the mass slaughters?” the voice comes from somewhere behind me. It surprises even me, and every person turns right around in their seat to identify the person crazy enough to ask such a question. But there’s no one there. All the seats behind me are empty.
The educator smiles nervously, as she licks her lips. She doesn’t know how to respond. No one does.
“Let’s move on.” She calls out, her voice trembling. She knows this isn’t good – that she could be killed for even so much as answering it. No one argues or stops her. They just accept it. They accept it like they accept the unfairness and the poverty they live in, like they accept the harsh rules and cruelty of the Regimen. Suddenly I’m angry. I’m furious.
And that’s when it happens.
“I think we should answer the question.” I haven’t even realised that it’s me who’s spoken, until everyone is staring straight towards me. I don’t know where it came from. I know I shouldn’t have spoken. They’ll be looking for me now – the Regimen. It only takes one match to light a wildfire. But somehow, I can’t stop. It’s as if a part of me has been awakened, alighted, and now I can’t control it.
“The question is irrelevant.” The woman stutters.
“We all know it isn’t.” I answer again. “It’s something more than half of us want to know. But then again, there are many things we would like to know. Many things we will never receive an answer to.”
The room is eerily silent. The educator’s nervous laugh is the first thing to break through the silence.
“There are many things we want to know – but there are also many reasons why we won’t ask them. Why we don’t question.”
“It’s not your place –” the educator begins again, but I cut her off.
“You don’t question because you’re afraid.”
And then it ends as quickly as it came. The fire inside me subsides, and a wave of the shock of what I’ve just done, crashes over me
I think of what I have said. I think about why I just did what I did, and why I chose this lesson to voice my opinion. I realise that I don’t have an answer. I don’t have an explanation.
“Would you please accompany me out of the classroom.” The educated tells me with a stern expression. It’s not a question. I stand up, gather my belongings, and I walk out of the classroom, past the sea of shocked and stunned faces staring up at me.
The educator pulls me to the side, out of earshot from anyone listening.
“That lesson was Watched. There will be repercussions.”
I nod. I know this. I expected her to say this.
“That’s why you have to leave now. You have to leave before they find you.” She whispers the words, because she knows that even here – in the middle of the corridor – your words aren’t safe. Her response shocks me. She is not like me. She should worship the Regimen. She shouldn’t be trying to save me. Wrong. Her aiding me feels wrong.
“Why are you trying to save me?” I ask.
“I want you to live.”
Her answer is simple. Kind. That’s what she is. It feels wrong for someone to be kind; to care. I don’t like them. I mistrust them. You don’t find many of them these days. Every man for themselves. That’s what they’re all like.
“Go,” she tells me urgently, “get out of here while you still have the chance.”
I think about it. I take the opportunity, but I refuse to thank her. That means that I have admitted to owing her, and I hate owing people anything. I turn and I walk down the corridor quickly, without looking back. I don’t know what punishment that woman will face for saving me, and I don’t want to think about it. The thought makes me feel guilty, and I have done nothing to feel guilty for.
My black fountain pen hovers above my piece of clean and white piece of paper, puzzled, unsure of where to start. A cool, delicate breeze drifts past the bare skin of my arms, sending a shiver all the way up my spine. All around me, the stray leaves that litter the grass lift up into the air, and they sway swiftly all around me with the wind. I close my eyes and breathe in the smells that float in the air all around. The smell of soil and earth, blossoming flower buds and crushed leaves surrounds me. It’s a welcome smell because it’s so rare.
I almost want to scream with the wonders that surround me; the slice of the pale blue sky, a small brown bird’s chirp goodbye, and the low whistle of the wind in the trees.
In this small clearing hidden from sight, only accessible to those who are able to climb over the High Walls – the walls that surround the perimeter of the town, which is where the school building is situated – is where I find my solitude and safety. There is only a small area beyond the High Walls that is accessible, due to the Cupolas – the almost-invisible wall that surrounds each town. I’m lucky I even know this place exists. Everyone else is supposed to think that the Cupola runs along the perimeter of the High Walls blocking off the other world entirely, but I found a way around this. I found a small portion of the Outlands that isn’t concealed. The freedom I feel when I’m here is almost sickening, in a pleasant way. The area is unkept and wild, because no one with common sense ever dares to venture past the point of safety that the High Walls provide. But, the unruliness is what makes it to beautiful. The grass has grown right up to my ankles, which is a phenomenon in itself, and the feel of it as it brushes my ankles is a pleasant one.
Whenever I need to hide or find safety, this is where I come. The walls are easy enough to climb over, if you’ve been climbing since you were let out of your house. Out here, in the middle of no-where, is where a slice of paradise – what is left of it – can be found.
I can stand on the large rock – big enough to fit three people easily – and shout out all of my anger, drain it all, and no one will even so much as hear me. I can write in my little black book made of soft leather, and no one will demand to read the secret words scribbled across the thin parchment, the words that are my thoughts. I can think whatever I want to think. I can feel safe with the knowledge that the Regimen aren’t watching. I can be myself, which is almost too much to hope for.
My eyes flitter downwards onto the blank sheet of paper.
The Regimen have almost destroyed all parchment or taken whatever they find for themselves. They told us that it was wasteful. They gave the richer students another reason to mock the poor.
I place my pen to the page in front of me.
It’s two months until my birthday. Sixty One days until I’m sixteen, until they Mark me and place my name on the list.
I’m scared. I’m too ashamed to admit it, but I am.
I lift my pen off the piece of tanned paper dented with the pressure of the writing from the previous page. I can feel the pressure and the weight of the memories hidden deep in a place away from thought, threatening to spill into view again. I know what happens after the rows of images flash through my mind of that night, and I know how dizzy I feel afterwards. It takes all my strength to push them away. I think about what I’ve written. It’s custom in Semi – I don’t know about the other Tracts – that when each child turns sixteen, they’re marked, or tattooed across their wrist in permanent ink, and then taken away. I realise that a part of me likes it here – or rather, likes the feeling of living in a home with a mother that we can almost call our own. That’s when I shut the thought away. If I think about it too long, the hollow feeling of fear spreads through me, and I hate feeling afraid. I hate feeling so helpless.
I close the book laid snugly across my lap, and I tie the thin ribbon securely around it.
And then I hear footsteps. I hear the crunch of one of the dried leaves crumpled under the sole of a shoe. I hear the intake of breath. I catch the wafting smell of her mother’s perfume thick in the air. That’s what gives it away. That’s what smells so familiar. I turn around just as Eira climbs off the wall. She strides over to where I sit.
“What’s happening out there?” I ask her when she sits down next to me.
From this place on the rock, I can see far across the barren landscape that clutters the surrounding area. Nothing grows here, near the factories. If it does, it’s coated in the thick and foul smelling fumes. Only if you walk deeper into the Outlands – as deep as possible but not too close to the cupola – you’ll find forests of trees and plants so beautiful you don’t want to look away.
“They’re here. They’re looking for you.” She answers quietly, her attention lost in the landscape.
“What happened to the educator I was last with?” I find myself asking. I don’t mean to, it just slips out of my mouth.
“They’ve taken her. They saw her talking to you just before you left. They think she’s guilty.”
“She saved my life.” It takes a lot to admit. “And she’ll die for it.”
Eira doesn’t answer. We both like it that way.
“They’re looking for me and Kailey. They know we’re all connected. They think we have something to do with this.”
“They can’t find me.” I tell her urgently.
“I know.” She answers gently. She turns her head sideways, facing me. I feel her dark eyes studying me, reading me. Eira sees everything. It’s part of who she is.
She reads me like an open book – she’s the only one – and it unsettles me.
“They can’t find you.”
“I’ll protect myself. I’ll protect Kailey. You know I will.” She answers. I do know that. I know how capable they both are of protecting themselves.
“Go,” I tell her, “before they have to search for you as well. Then we’ll all look guilty.”
She nods and climbs off the rock. She walks away from me, towards the wall. Just before she begins to climb, she turns around to face me.
“They won’t come close to finding you,” she calls out, “no one ever could.” And then she disappears with a small smile.