Some time ago…
The night had finally arrived and he welcomed it. The citadel was as near to quiet as it ever would be. There was the hum of a TT vehicle patrolling, the sinister buzzing of BOTs still tasking late into the night; they never stopped. Then there was the sound of his mother’s breathing. Even through the walls, he could hear her. She was sleeping fretfully, plagued by her fears, turning constantly. She would miss him, but he knew that if he was to stay she would never see him again.
He slid from his bed and placed silent feet upon the floor. In another bed, his younger brother slept. The gap from a blackout blind allowed the moon to fall upon his face. Before leaving the bedroom, he studied the countenance that was at once so familiar and yet foreign. His brother would do well, he would do very well.
The urge to wake him was powerful yet he resisted. If he was to survive, he would have to become invisible. The first thing he would need to do was to evade the citadel’s ever present guards. It was now or never for soon they would place a BOT in their home as a reward for the long, hard service his father had done for the Family. With a House BOT, escape could well be impossible.
He eased open the door, cursing himself for not checking the alarm beforehand. Too late now, but his luck was in. The alarm had not been set. Opening it slightly, he squeezed through and out into the night. He was in the shadows now, edging the sides of buildings. It was all so unfamiliar outside of daylight. A whirr ran down the centre of the street and he stopped. A BOT moved along illuminated by its own internal workings. The boy watched it pass and then resumed his trek.
He had travelled for another mile like this, his aim to make it to the citadel’s boundaries, when a voice spoke into his ear.
“A nice night for a walk, isn’t it?”
We always knew that school was important, the mechanical testing of our understanding, the rigid adherence to rules of behaviour. We knew that to not do well in school meant…well it meant that you didn’t do well in life. No second chances, no retakes. You have one go at getting it right, that was all.
Pre-exam nerves came in all shapes and sizes. Some kids would just bottle it. They became nervous wrecks incapable of speaking, walking or even running. They were the easy targets, easy pickings if you like. Others were a little more proactive. Some of them would go AWOL (Absent without Learning). These were the ones the truancy teams spent their time on. The TTs would go to any length to make sure that all truants were captured and dealt with. Hardly anybody escaped their investigations and no family went unpunished.
Then there’s the likes of me, a proper SSWOTT (Sensible, studious, wise, organised and totally trained). I was every teacher’s dream, every parent’s wish. What they didn’t know was that I would find out. I would find out almost everything about what they were doing.
And I would, one day, stop it.
Mum looked scared. She was running late.
“Where the hell is my ID tag?”
ID tags were compulsory and had been for the best part of forty years. They had been brought in to make life easier. They were digitalized and contained all the information anyone would ever wish to know about you. They were used as currency, to pay bills, to lock the house or even to start the car. At this moment in time, the ID tag could do none of these things because it had been misplaced. Mum was panicking.
“Adam, have you seen it?” she asked me.
“Sorry, Mum,” I shrugged my shoulders to emphasize my lack of knowledge as to its whereabouts.
“Has your father moved it?”
The question itself was pitched somewhere into the realms of improbability as Dad had been dead for the best part of five years. They said it had been a rare form of cancer, ‘one of the ones we haven’t been able to track down yet,’ the doctor had intoned. So being dead should have meant that he wasn’t able to move things about. He wasn’t a ghost after all, was he? Well yes he was, sort of.
The ID tag had a lot of uses and one of them was that, if you had enough credits, you could bring back a loved one and incorporate them into a household electronic device that captured the essence of their earthly character. Dad was now a roBOT, about three feet in size, multifunctional, equipped with the ability to handle screw drivers, garden implements and having the knowledge to unblock sinks and drains without so much as a mutter.
“Ian,” she called. “Have you moved the ID tag?”
Before she had been able to completely round off the last syllable, Dad appeared at the door of the kitchen.
“What is it, dear?”
They had done a good job with digital Dad. It had the facial image and a voice that was a very passable facsimile of his. It was the kind of voice that ought to have been spot on, but that was reckoning without that hint of sadness that all saved-soul devices had. Each time I heard its pretence, I hated it just a little more.
“Have you moved the keys?” She was sharp, betraying her own thoughts. “ID! Have you moved the bloody ID?”
“I have moved no keys, no ID and no bloody ID. Is there something you wish me to do?”
She was bubbling under the surface. She always was, just beneath the surface.
“Well, look for them won’t you. Be useful for once.”
She stifled a scream as she shot a look of hatred at the device that was Dad.
I waited there for a while. She never turned around, but something told me that she was crying.
“I think you’d better go before it’s too late. You can’t blot your record now when you’re so near to the end of it all.”
I watched her shoulders tremble and wanted to put an arm around her, but that was something I had never done since my older brother had run away from home some years ago.
“Just go, before you get into trouble. Go!”
I didn’t take much more encouraging. If I was late for school, God knows what would happen.
It usually takes us about five minutes to get to school, but that’s in the NuCar. On foot, I worked out that I would have to cover the three point two kilometres in just under fifteen minutes; if I was to stand a chance.
Most people don’t use the streets anymore. Certainly, most kids stay clear of them. I heard funny stories about young people (long, long ago) playing in the streets and on open ground, but I don’t know how much that was real or just imagined. The sight of me running along would have been something out of the ordinary. I saw the faces of adults and children transfixed as they slipped past in their NuCars. They probably thought I was an AWOL or something, seeing as it was so close to the exams.
I was lucky because the rain had stopped. May, June and August were the wet months. No day escaped the attentions of the chainmail covering of clouds and the drains were always full to overflowing. Some parts of the city were abandoned to the waters and old houses were left to sink beneath their wet embrace. Every now and then, flash floods would occur and some new area would be left eternally vulnerable. On a normal day, I would have been soaked to the skin. Today, I was fine; or would have been.
NuCars, running on safe nuclear fuel, don’t make any noise. They creep up on you without giving themselves away. I had never noticed before then just how stealthy they could be, but on the deserted streets a lone runner has to be careful.
I was counting the seconds in an attempt to keep up my pace. I glanced at my mobile and saw that I was just touching six minutes for each kilometre. I had to increase my strides and this was already beginning to stab burning intrusions into my lungs and leg muscles.
I thought that the first NuCar would have swerved to avoid a puddle, but then another did the same with exactly the same results. Both hit the edge of the pools with the front tyres forcing small arcs of dirty rain water up into the air and towards me. I saw the grinning faces of passengers checking for my reaction and noticed that there was disappointment upon them as the liquid fell short.
I was looking over my shoulder when I saw that one car was beginning to make an unmistakeable dash for another enormous pool of water. I just had time to skirt to the side of the road before it hit, sending up a claw-like arc into the air and towards me. It fell short, but only just.
In the rear window, the smirk that resided there belonged to Wayne Higgins, a lad from my class. Every dog has its moment, I muttered to myself.
Seeing his ugly face made me increase my pace. I couldn’t let it beat me.
The gates were whirring shut, but I managed to sprint between their metallic jaws just in time. I’d heard tales of kids being trapped doing the same thing, their bones crushed as if beneath the boot of some fairytale giant. Some were lucky, some were not. I was lucky.
It was a familiar voice that barked across the yard towards me.
“Gooder! Stop there right now.”
I did as I was ordered to. Grimes was not a man to mess with. He was an ex-soldier who had retired wounded from the army. Honourable discharge after year of disposing of foreign terrorists in foreign lands.
“What was that all about, lad?”
He was up close and I could see the blood vessels in the whites of his eyes. Monday mornings they seemed to multiply. Soon I would smell the vague stench of alcohol, the complex industrial stuff that you could only buy on the black market.
“I was late, Sir. My mum couldn’t find her ID so she couldn’t drop me off.”
“What about your dad?”
“He’s dead, sir.”
Grimes looked at me without any attempt at sorrow.
“Well you should have had a contingency plan. Shouldn’t you? If I had acted like you, I would have been dead a thousand times over.”
Grimes was walking on synthetic legs from the knees down. Modern surgery had leapt forward since the fifty year war had begun.
“Yes, sir,” I answered wanting to get away in time to register.
“Yes, sir,” he parodied.
“You’re a proper little goody-goody aren’t you?”
I could see that his upper lip was covered in a thin sheen of sweat. In fact, a film of the stuff was covering his forehead and temples.
“Are you alright, sir?”
His eyes narrowed with contempt.
“Alright? Are you asking me if I’m alright?”
“Don’t get me wrong, sir, but you do look a little off colour.”
He moved towards me and I thought that he was going to grab my throat or something else that was equally as unpleasant. At the last moment, he stopped, as if to reconsider.
“Best get off before it hits the fan for you.”
I took no more persuading and was across the yard before he had time to think again. My ID tag was around my neck and I pulled it up sharply to swipe across the mag-lock that opened the way into the building. I shouldn’t have run, but I did. Fortunately for me, Singh was messing about with his computer tablet and didn’t see me sneak into my place at the back of the classroom.
A few faces turned towards me as I slunk in. The grin was still squatting on the face of Higgins although he didn’t say anything. Nobody spoke without being spoken to first. And that had to be someone who was in authority.
“You’ve just made it, Gooder. Why is that?”
My ID would have triggered the register as I entered.
“Mum was running late, sir.”
“Running late? What about your father?”
“He’s dead, sir.”
That smirk resurfaced on Higgins again. One day, I promised myself, one day.
“Oh yes, I seem to recall it.”
At the time, Dad’s death was big news. For a long time we had to live in shame. Perhaps it was that which drove Jamie to run away.
“Well she could do without more trouble couldn’t she now, Gooder?”
His concern barely disguised his contempt.
Mr Singh had the power of granting success or failure to his students. He wasn’t just en loco parentis, he was, for us, the ultimate power. On a nod or a shake of his head, some of us would go on to achieve complete citizenship whilst others would be consigned to the rubbish heap. He was a man who was purpose-made for this role. He rarely showed emotions, never developed rapport with his charges, had to answer only to the Principal. He was a sort of god. A god we were careful not to upset.
After his slight interplay with me, Mr Singh returned to his normal routine of reading out the notices. For this, he raised himself from his chair and moved in front of his desk.
“Today marks the start of the Finals. As you are all well aware of, you will be required to sit, and pass, each and every examination you have been studying for. Nobody is expected to fail,” he said moving his eyes across his captive audience with a certain smile. “As with everything, you will be at school at least an hour before your normal starting time.” He purposely caught my eye, “That won’t be a problem will it, Gooder?”
“I should not have to remind any of you that the consequences of not complying with the rules is automatic failure and disqualification from the Finals. There are no ifs and buts, no excuses. Is that understood?”
The reply came from the whole class as if they were soldiers rather than students.
The rest of the notices were read with less passion and finally we were dismissed for lessons. As the rest of the class trooped out, Mr Singh called me over to him.
“I would like a word with you, Gooder.”
I had a black-hole in my stomach that wanted to pull me in.
I waited while the rest of the group left the room. Everybody kept their eyes firmly averted; everyone apart from Higgins. He had that same supercilious look that he always had; reserved just for me. I tried not to take any notice of it.
“Gooder,” Mr. Singh was saying, “you have not been doing well of late. I noticed that you just scraped an A in your last Physics test. Indeed,” he continued, looking down at a sheet in front of him, “there is significant movement, in the wrong direction, in a number of your marks.”
He finished with a flurry that could not be mistaken for anything other than reproach. He was staring at me, awaiting my reply whilst knowing that to do so I would be breaking the rules; I hadn’t been asked to speak. Finally, he broke the deadlock.
“What’s happening? Explain.”
I could never explain to anybody what was happening. I couldn’t tell them about the dreams. I couldn’t let them know of any of my suspicions. All I could do was lie.
“I’m just finding the work a little difficult at the moment, sir.”
“Difficult? Difficult? Are you telling me that your intellectual capacity is insufficient? Are you becoming prematurely retarded?”
Premature Retardation happened with a lot of older people. They started forgetting things, lost the ability to function on basic levels; became a little slower. After a while, their behaviour would be picked up by the authorities or reported by members of their own families. If a PR was reported and found to be credible then the family member would automatically gain their property and possessions. In a world where housing and goods were in short supply, inheritance was seen as being an acceptable route to take to ensure security.
“No, sir. I will just have to put more effort into my studies from now on.”
“That you will certainly have to do, young man. There are no second chances to succeed. Do you understand?”
I did understand. It had been drummed into us from Year 1. With The Finals taking place on an annual basis, those kids who did not understand, failed to graduate. They were forced out of school and you never saw them again.
“Right then,” he snapped, “on your way.”
“Sir,” I asked, feigning nervousness, “could you sign my planner?”
Singh had kept me late on purpose and I would be late for the next registration, a black mark that was more tangible than a mere reproof.
“You had better get going hadn’t you?”
I couldn’t argue with him. He was God.