Alone. Stranded. Destitute. What more could they lose in this unforgiving, barren land? But for the outcasts, life was unforgiving, uncaring, unending. It wasn’t just the challenging demons of the present that haunted them. It was the past. The future> All woven into one terrible, terrible hideous creature that broke every spirt in their body and left them desperate. Afraid. Alone.
One of these victims was Sarah, who undertook the monumental task of freeing them at such as young age. She stared out from the Command Tower and looked at the collection of tents and thrown together houses that to a passer-by would look no more than a slum.
But it was her slum. her responsibility. At least it was for now. A droplet of water glided down her cheek as she remembered the tales she had been told. Tales from her parents’ generation. She was sitting down outside her tent, when Ol’ Jibb spoke to her. He was one of the lucky ones. Not for some brave heroic deed. He wouldn’t be one to be written about in the Historical Records, one to be spoken about for generations. He simply did what many others failed to do. He made it.
Jibb was full of tales of the Days of Long Ago. Fays of peace. Days of love. Oh! She longed more than ever to get back to those days. Now she was living a nightmare of jumbled thoughts and violence. Was it the violence of her own mind she feared most? How can you measure something you fear more than death itself?
It happened in a day. Proudly standing, the President appeared, his unreadable face masking his thoughts more than ever. He announced The Test. Sarah shuddered at those words. Imprisoned by her thoughts she looked down at the floor, examining the nails in the oak wood in the hope she could distract herself. WHat she would give to shut off those thoughts. But she could only do that in death. And death was not ready for her, yet.
So, she relaxed and surrendering to herself she went back to the fire. Ol’ Jibb was talking about the results of The Test. The President only wanted those with the highest scores. Everyone else was removed from the city. The walls came up, the slums developed. All because of a result on a piece of paper.
Anyone who stayed behind was killed. She shuddered at the brutality of her thought. ‘Passed away’ would have been more appropriate. But a life of evil had taken its toll. Why try and dress up her thoughts. But she had to remain hopeful. Tonight was their last attempt. Spirits had been broken enough, this was their last fight in them. If they failed now, it would all be over. Everything gone. She couldn’t let that be her legacy.
Even those who made it out weren’t safe. The President ordered the majority of the slums to be eliminated. Wars continued to rage on against the sums on the sides of the city walls. Built away from the city, their shelter offered some protection. But a quick walk up the hill was all that’s needed to see violence which would scar for eternity.
“Sarah I need you to come down, the others are waiting” said Jack.
“Don’t you knock before you enter a room” she snapped, angered by the interruption of her thoughts.
“Sarah, are you okay?” Jack asked.
“None of us are going to be okay again Jack,” she said, her water droplets turning into a light downpour, “we’re never going to be okay again.”
“But remember Ol’ Jibb. He gave you this building. Built from his bare hands. He gave you the fight. He gave you those Historical Records. Don’t let him down, Sarah. Do this for him”
“Don’t you dare use Jibb against me. He was like a father to me” Sarah yelled, her cool composure of a strong leader disintegrating into the abyss.
Jack looked down. Hurt. In another life, their old life, maybe they could be together. They had everything that was needed. Same age. Liked the same things. Ticked all the boxes. But Jack knew that was just a fantasy. A fault line had cut between the two of them, and only the earthquakes of arguments kept them together at all.
“You can’t still blame me for my parents’ actions, Sarah” Jack said. He didn’t know what to say. If Sarah snapped now the whole thing would be off. Everyone below had been looking up to the Command Tower. Everyone had waited for this moment.
“Why do you say ‘actions’?” Sarah laughed, “Tell me exactly what so-called ‘actions’ did they do?”
“Sarah, please, now is not the time,” Jack said. He was trying to think on his feet. He sat down on an upturned box, studying his feet. Looking down he knew everything about them, in a world of violence, staring at one’s feet was the only way to cut one’s vision off from the horrors of the outside world. It was a skill Jack had mastered well.
“I want you to say it. I need you to say it. Tell me what they did,” Sarah said, standing behind him.
“Sarah I’m not going to say it,” Jack said his voice reduced to a whisper. If only it was another way. He carried his parents’ shame with him. Their burden became his. And now, standing a few feet away from the girl he had a chance at a life with, he hated his parents more than ever.
He felt ashamed for doing so. But then he felt shame for a lot of his thoughts. But how could he escape those negative thoughts? HE was trapped. He thoughts swaddled him from the violence outside. They were the only thing he had left. And he was losing control of even them.
“They killed them!” Sarah shouted, “So they could escape, mine never could.”
“They never escape,” Jack whispered, his soft voice broken.
“They chose not to escape Jack. They took the selfish decision. Kill my parents and them themselves so they didn’t have to face the consequences.”
“I’ve got to live with that too Sarah. We were so young. How could we be to blame?”
Sarah looked at him. Her brain was alive with red sparks. The floodgates opened and now a torrent of thoughts was filling her brain. She sat down and squeezed her eyes shut. No! That just made the thoughts more vivid. A picture of her parents was slowly bringing itself into the front of her consciousness.
Her symphony of darkness was interrupted. She had managed to repress most of her thoughts into a small corner of her brain, leaving the rest of her mind in the safe darkness where no thoughts could penetrate. Now there was light. Her thought’s had been released.
“Sarah?” quizzed Jack, not knowing what to say. He so desperately wanted to comfort her, to tell her that everything would be okay. Repeat the lie that had been passed through generations.
But he held back.
“I’ll be waiting outside Sarah. We need to leave in five” he stated before briskly walking out of the room. Life was too much for him. He had to focus on the plan, hide those feelings away, release them at a later date. Preferably never at all.
Sarah looked back towards the balcony and saw Jack walking off. She broke him. She was broken herself. Her mind was on fire, her thoughts a roller coaster that would never end.
But she had to stay strong. How could she expect the others to if she couldn’t. She climbed down the ladder and approached the waiting crowd. She canned the crowd on her decent. Every last man, woman and child was there.
They clapped as she climbed down. She stared at the ocean of broken faces below her. A small podium of boxes had been created for her. She walked up to it, the crowd fell silent. Adults, twice her age and more, exceedingly qualified and experienced to take her position, fell silent before her. If Ol’ Jibb had believed in Sarah, then that was good enough for them.
“You may be expecting some grand speech here, but as many of you know I’m not one for words,” she said. A laugh from the crowd. A scream of “You can do it!” erupted from the back,
“But I have err…erm…” Sarah trailed off, her words stalled by the faces among her. They had fought so much for this day. They had sacrificed so much. She turned round and stared at Jack standing to one side behind her. her thoughts had already got the better of her once today. She couldn’t repeat that.
She stepped off the makeshift podium. The crowd were still silent, every eye watching her. She stared back at them. If she left now, her parents’ would have died in vain. She found her mum’s face and brought that image straight into her mind.
“I stand here on the same earth you do,” she said, articulating every word without hesitation. her voice, the same powerful one she used when she made her first speech as Commander.
“And we are all here to fight for that earth,” she said, a cheer from the crowd again.
“We should not have to suffer for the events of generations past. We will write our own history!” The fight in her had been released. It wasn’t as though a tiger had been unleashed within her. An entire zoo filled with proprietorial beasts had been let out. The crowd cheered again.
“And we have been fighting. We built the tunnel!” She said, a pause again fro the crowd to cheer. She could see their broken faces slowly lifting. Their depressed thoughts rising into the mist and disappearing above the clouds. The happiness they felt in this moment from their superficial freedom far outweighed any happiness they felt before. They savoured this moment. This moment would be the most powerful in all of their lives/. They held silent for a few moments, to be finally at peace.
“And we will use the tunnel. The Test has divided us. But tonight. Tonight we go under the walls, under the city and back to our land. Back to the homes we lived in. The streets we journeyed every day. Back to our life.” Another pause for the crowd. The cheer never came.
“But how will we get back to that life?” Sarah asked the crowd, repeating the question that was on all of their minds. She could tell that her speech, although on a good track, was starting to trail off.
“It’s written in the Historical Records that if the President is killed all previous decisions under them are reverted. A clean slate. The Test is no more” she answered.
“But he’s guarded. How will we do it?” someone shouted from the back.
“Ol’ Jibb was the closest of all of us to the President. The President doesn’t have guards within the grounds when he’s home. He doesn’t believe in any threats from us. Our tunnel goes up within the grounds. Therefore, we bypass the guards.”
“You make it sound so simple. Why hasn’t it been done before?” someone asked. The crowd were getting restless now. Promising freedom was one thing. Getting everyone to work on that promise was another.
“We have never tunnelled so far before. We have done something no one else has been able to achieve. Years of trying has not led to our chance of freedom. We owe it to those who have gone before us. Those here now that did go through it,” Sarah waved a hand to the adults in the pack. Though few, some managed to make it out alive.
“We suffered The Test. Then The Killing. Now we can get our freedom. Our Freedom will have capital letters. Our Freedom will go down in the Historical Records.
“So?” Sarah asked “Who’s with me?”
The sea of broken faces all stepped forward.
“We are,” they said.