After the Individual

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Chapter 6.

Chester’s words...

I won’t go into the full details of what life has been like in terms of the day-to-day struggle, especially with you here, John, but I will tell you enough. Please excuse me if you both find this upsetting.

After being arrested, a bag placed over my head and my hands were tied. When we reached the destination, the bag was removed from my head. I opened my eyes to see, out of the bus window, a huge group of people and more Imperia guards in front of me. I was at an Imperia camp.

They were sorting people into two groups. The yellow people and the red people were queuing in front of the big entrances to the two massive camps.

I have never seen such a large group of people. Tens of thousands!

These were all different types of people too. It was mostly men, but you could also see some women and children. For the most part, however, the people seemed alone, scared and vulnerable, with absolutely no idea why they were there.

As I was kicked off the bus, I was marched up to the Imperia guards who sat at a table sorting people.

They had my details on file. The man inspecting my file looked up at me, didn’t say a word and pointed at the red entrance. There were less people in this queue.

Was this a good thing? I wasn’t sure.

They seemed to be moving people in groups. They moved us through the entrance and into a large factory-like building. It was like an old disused aircraft hangar.

I asked someone what was going on, and they said there would be an announcement in a second.

‘Prisoners!’ Everyone gasped.

The speakers high up in the factory boomed.

‘Prisoners?’ A few voices muttered as everyone looked around in horror.

’You have been chosen for the red camp. This is for people who pose a permanent threat to the Imperia. You will never leave this camp. We consider that you have passed the point of no return.

’You could never fit in the Imperia’s future plans for a harmonious society. We have created a world for you and in your new world, there are no rules, there is no control and you will have the freedom to live how you like.

‘The only thing that is controlled is you can never leave. We hope that this suits you. You will be provided with the basic elements needed to survive and it is up to you how you choose to live. We will see if freedom to be yourselves is really what you wanted.’

As the announcement ended, the large factory doors opened on the other side.

A huge light appeared before us, as did the dust from the ground and the echoing noise of chaos.

There was screams, crying, shouting. It was all before us and there were Imperia helicopters flying overhead.

As we walked in, we were greeted with the chaos of society. It was a jungle of humanity.

No ruling powers, no medical facilities, no structural homes. There were sheets and sticks.

Plastic sheeting, iron roofing, odd bricks – these homes were evidently made out of whatever their occupants could find. The end of the arena was not visible.

There was litter, broken glass, fires, melting plastic and…the occasional corpse.

Everyone walked on in fear as people began to shout and throw things at us.

It was an absolute free for all – quite literally.

There were the odd buildings in view. It looked as if it had once been a proper city in a former life.

–The fact that I lived there for four years and still didn’t see every corner should give you an idea of scale of the place.

It was unbelievable –that such places existed. Around 10 million people were living there although no one was entirely sure.

As I walked around, I began looking for a place to live in or at least start to try to blend in.

This wasn’t a place you wanted to stand out in.

I followed the perimeter fence round until I found a suitable piece of ground. I walked for a good few hours, as I didn’t want to be disturbed by the constant new arrivals.

A voice greeted me, ‘New, are we?’ Being shaven and clean, I probably stood out like a sore thumb.

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Well, you can stay here as long as you help. That means hunting, cleaning and killing when needed.’

I have to admit he had my back up with killing but what choice did I have? I needed to at least find my bearings.

I agreed to join the man, and he opened up the flap to his tent, which had been dug into the ground to give him more room to stand up.

Not a bad set-up and enough space for me. I had to hope he was compos mentis and had just been waiting for someone to help.

I stayed with the man.

For weeks, months, years. I learnt that hunting and killing meant birds, rats and whatever you could get your hands on.

There were drop-offs of food. Which were random and all over the site. It was as if they were keeping us alive as part of a sociological experiment.

That could be cited on all of the Imperia’s propaganda. As a world without the Imperia and how it would have been if they hadn’t stepped in.

The drop-offs could be anything from vegetables and fruits to raw meat; sometimes, they let cows into the pen.

All to keep us on our toes, keep us competitive and living on the edge. For the most part, we were totally dependent on handouts as not much wildlife cared to venture into the camp except for the birds, which circled over you like vultures over dying gazelle.

Water was another issue. We had to gather whatever rainwater we had. Our captors would also occasionally spray large water cannons over the fence.

It was chaos, and there were mass fights on most days. You could see why this man needed a companion.

This man, by the way, was called Gabriel and he was to become a true friend.

Incidentally, he didn’t tell me his name at first. He did not think it mattered. He once had a name and now he didn’t as he didn’t need one. We grew closer and began forming our own mini pack. As the trust grew, I asked him once more for his name. ‘Don’t tell me there is no point in having one as now you have a friend, so you do need a name or else how do I shout to you?’ I prodded him. He pondered over my words for a while. ‘In that case, you can call me bud as I’m your buddy but…’ he trailed off ‘if it’s bugging you, my real name is Gabriel…after the angel.’ I was glad to have gotten slightly more close to him.

We shared a space and looked out for each other.

Bud did warn me to keep an eye out for the night wanderers as mostly people were all on the same side but there were groups of people who wanted to steal everything from everyone else.

There were no weapons in the camp. However, pieces of wood were strewn around and you could make sharp weapons out of metal.

The only thing was you were watched 24/7 so you had to hide your weapons. Anything threatening was seized during random raids as they were deemed a risk to the security guards if they ever needed to enter the camp.

They were also watching constantly from the guard towers.

The night wanderers then just tended to be the big ones, the ones who would take because they could.

I learnt to keep my head down and make out that I didn’t have much. It was the easiest way.

We had also chosen to live right underneath a guard tower so we gave ourselves the best possible chance.

The only thing was that the Imperia guards would take random pots shots at people. Their goals were clear. Cause more chaos. Make sure we all lived in constant fear.

They would try to get a shot as close as they could. I’m not sure if this was something that was enforced or just the individual guards having a bit of fun.

The best thing to do all round was to keep your head down.

Eventually, Bud began to open up to me. He had been a teacher just like me, except teaching a younger generation in primary schools – he was literally a man who cut his teeth in the old school. He was full of great wisdom and stories. He was an elderly caring man, and he grew to be a great friend of mine.

He had been in the camp for a while and seemed to be extremely knowledgeable of its workings.

I asked him about the yellow camp and why the difference.

The yellow camp was for people the Imperia believed had the ability to change.

This means, largely, the yellow camp was for people who had committed lesser crimes and/or whose individuality was more malleable.

Confinement periods in the yellow camp varied depending on how quickly the occupants changed or was dependent on the severity of the crime they committed.

However, there was an ultimate test they needed to pass which would determine whether they were to be set free or shifted into the red camp.

It slowly dawned on me. The reality of how Bud knew so much. He didn’t need to spell it out but he confirmed it with his eyes. I’m pretty he was a former guard or he had some sort of inside knowledge.

Bud was my chance. He was someone who had been there and done it, well just been there at least. I tried to learn as much as I could from him. What did the test involve and how could you pass it.

The test, he said, was to see whether you have become institutionalised or not. This contains a series of tests designed by the Imperia.

They test the person’s loyalty to the Imperia as well as the way they think. The Imperia wishes for all of its citizens to think in the same way so they can all be controlled.

Their eventual aim and – Bud truly believed this – was to have as much data as possible on the ways in which people think so that they can ultimately change and control that on a mass scale. Everything was around this, he said. ‘The red camp, the yellow camp, everyone out there. We are all being measured, assessed and slowly they are closing the net. They will be able to control all of our minds, so we ultimately work for them. This is the overall aim of the Imperia…One world mind and no more free thoughts. Even your thoughts will be given to you.’ He did, at this point, sound like a rambling paranoid. However, with little reflection, they also started to sound like the truest words ever spoken. This is what they wanted all along and the reason why they had given us so much choice in the first place. They wanted to play with all of our hopes and desires.

I started listening to Bud more intently and frequently. The man made sense. He also really understood what it was all about; he displayed clarity as if he was in the guard tower and the Imperia were the ones being understood from a great height. You can see why he and I got on so well!

This test, although designed to weed out people like me, was the only way out I had heard of. You couldn’t dig nor climb out. The fences were 100ft underground and 100ft above ground and that was just the first one. There were several others after that.

’The test it is!’ I knew it was my only way out. It is easier to flow downstream than swim up it. At least at this stage, it was the sensible thing to do – make myself appear as valuable and amenable as possible. First of all, I needed to get into the yellow camp – but how? I asked Bud if had he ever seen anyone getting transferred from red to yellow.

‘Never,’ he replied.

Bud stressed on most days that the red camp stood true to its name. People were sent there to die and die they would. ‘That is all you need to know. We must help each other live in the best way we can before we meet that end.’ And so we did. .

We did become quite the team. United in every way except for one. I was determined to break free and lived with the perpetual hope that I would. I didn’t know how but I would try at all costs.

There were frequent breakout attempts. People often went mad. They ran at the fences or there would be mass riots trying to charge the fences.

All of them were shot instantly. I needed to be more tactful than that.

I hoped to catch the attention of the guard in the guard towers on most days. I needed to be noticed but in a good way.

Over the course of my time there, I would do various things to get their attention. Praying towards them, smiling, going for a run, doing press-ups and reflecting the sun at them. That last one was risky, I know, and there were a few pot shots here and there, but I imagine I did manage to draw a few smiles from them.

My activities were not commonplace – not in the camp. They made me stand out. Who would exercise when food is scarce and getting out is not a possibility?

The plan was, and I am not even entirely sure why, that maybe the guard would see potential in me.

I ignored Bud’s advice to keep my head down. I might as well test the guards; generally, it was the same one and I hoped he would see something good in me.

Sometimes he did aim his gun at me, but I would scramble back in as soon as I could.

These mock shots became fewer over the days, which in my mind meant some sort of a relationship had been forged. I was like his little pet hamster that enlivened his monotonous days. I knew he had a job to do, but I am sure that on some days he would have liked to have smiled and waved back at me.

You see, as a collective, they may follow rules but as individuals they may see themselves in us. This is exactly what I was coaching out of him. The situation was unnatural for both of us, and it was important that we both remembered that.

I could also see that the guard was probably beginning to admire my courage and determination, risking being shot to entertain myself would win many a fan I imagine.

It’s hard to say how long I kept this up for. Perhaps just over a year? For one day, the guard whistled me over and shouted in an angry tone.

‘Over here now!’ He was very sharp with me as if to make a scene in front of the other guards and those around me who had been watching what I was doing.

He made me stand by the bottom of the tower. ‘Do not move, until I say,’ he said with a gun pointed to my head.

I stood there for a full day, my knees and lower back burning.

Everyone grew bored at some point. They were not paying any attention to me by the time it became dark.

As night settled in, a small notepad fell from the sky and landed next to my feet. It looked very official in nature.

The voice from the tower whispered, ‘Pick it up and go back to your cave.’ And so I did as quick as I could. I ran back to the cave and opened the letter, making sure that no one was looking. The light of the fire lit up the words just enough for me to read. It was a manual, a plan of how I was going to get to the yellow camp. I couldn’t believe my eyes!

The note informed me of how there was an imminent death in the yellow camp – my heart skipped a beat – of a man who appeared very similar to me. He had been in the camp for two years, and the guard who I had become acquainted was going to dispose of his body in secret. This man was an admirable inmate and was prospering well in his assessments; however, he had become ill. He was going to die in a few weeks or months. No one could say, but it was his last wish to help someone in the red camp and he had become friends with a couple of the guards. I read on.

The plan was that upon this man’s death, I would be taken out of the red camp and into the yellow. I was to place a piece of wood sticking out of the ground outside of my tent as soon as possible. On the fateful day, the guard will fire a shot to hit the piece of wood. Once the wood was shot, I was to look out for three flashes from the guard’s torch. That night, I was to go over to the wall. I did not need to do anything at that time, but it would signify that my swap was to happen that night. I needed to become this man in appearance at least. It was going to be risky, but it was my only way out. The note also informed me that once out this man had it in his contract that him and his family would not be under surveillance in their home at least!

There were slight differences in appearance between the man and me. So, I would need to work on that. His beard was slightly longer – I had been trimming mine with some shears Bud had made out of a couple of pieces of broken metal, so I needed to let mine grow for a few weeks. He also had a scar above his eyebrow. So, I needed to very carefully cut myself above my left eye and let it heal over. Of course, it needed to be careful, as there were definitely no medical facilities at our disposal. I heated the blade on the fire and cut myself with it. I heated it again to seal it up. Bud must have thought that I was depressed and self-harming the night I cut myself. I couldn’t, of course, explain my antics as I didn’t want to jeopardise my chances or blow my cover. I burnt the letter but kept a small passport size picture of the man the guard had passed on to me so that I could take on his appearance. The letter also didn’t provide me with his name or any other details about him. This, I thought was weird. Surely I needed to know?

However, the notepad also stated that details were not important as the Imperia didn’t really care who you thought you were. It was more about whom they commanded you to be. And that was just a citizen, just a number.

The guard had also informed me that after shooting the wood, he would turn the cameras away. It would, however, only be in a few weeks’ time to give me the time to prepare and to let the man suffer his unfortunate fate. Within these four weeks or so, I would have to keep a low profile, stay out of trouble and not risk drawing any attention to myself. Bud definitely questioned why my silly antics had stopped.

The pad had also given me a set of rules on what to expect and how to act once I got into the yellow camp. When I got to the yellow camp, I would be severely monitored. So, I would need to act appropriately all of the time. Also, since the yellow camp members were seen as the salvageable ones, they were taught how to become institutionalised. I would need to listen to all of these lessons if I was to display the right behaviour to be selected for the final test. Once I met the final test, I would then need to know how to pass it.

I stuck the wood in the mud and worked on getting everything right. I was buzzing with excitement those last few weeks. There was a real new sense of vigour about, even more than there was before. This lifted Bud’s mood too, I think. It’s a shame he wasn’t in on the plan.

And then it happened. ‘Bang!’ One morning, , a bullet hit the wood. It shook our tent and certainly startled Bud. ‘You’ve got to stop messing around,’ he said. ‘That’s a warning for you.’

I waited with eager anticipation all day. Bud knew something was up. I am sure that he knew that something was going on. He has a half smile and a glitter in his eye. He wasn’t daft.

That night, the three flashes came! This is it! I wandered over to the guard tower as quiet as I could. I couldn’t say bye to Bud, but I hope that he knew where I had gone. I am sure he did.

The guard climbed down to the bottom of the tower, opened the door, and then stood behind the next door which was open. ‘Psst!’ He ushered me over with his hand. My heart was about to beat out of my chest! ‘Is it a trap?’ I wondered. ‘Am I going to get shot?’

He opened the gate and grabbed me by the chest and pulled me in without saying a word. He pulled me through the bottom of the tower and pushed me through the next two doors, which led to a massive staircase that went down. Before he released me, he said, ’4556. That’s you from now on. 4556’ I tried to make out the face of my benefactor in the dark. ‘And put these on before you get to the next door’ He passed me some clothes. Grey trousers and a grey jumper. The ever-descending stairs eventually led to a small passage which I walked through for about half a mile and back up a set of stairs on the other side. I reached another door and opened it. This only led me to another door – both unmanned. I opened it and looked up. A tower appeared, and a guard stood looking at me. However, he didn’t say anything, so I shut the door.

I squatted down and ran straight forward before rolling under the bottom of a hut that was lifted off the ground. I slept that night with a new optimism. I did feel bad about leaving Bud behind. Although, like I said, he had a knowing smile on a few occasions and I would share one back. But I had made it; I was in the yellow camp!

The new day dawned and I crawled out from under the hut. Just mix in – I thought. I walked around the new camp. It seemed airier and brighter. There were ample tents to sleep in. If only I had noticed this the previous night instead of sleeping on the stony floor. I decided to walk around and crash in one of those for that night. So, that day, I did just walk round. There were a lot of training camps and lessons happening in these huts. They were teaching everyone the way of the Imperia, and I imagine, the world they were looking to build. I was lost from now. I had trained for a test, but I didn’t know when the test might come.

There were feeding tents and washing facilities in the yellow camp. So, I stood in line for both of these, had something to eat, and had a wash. I put my clothes back on. I found a spot near the door where I entered the yellow camp. Indeed, there was a spare bed – maybe I had found the man’s place after all. There were seven others in there. No one spoke – they all look drained when they got back later than me. A few funny looks but everyone went to sleep pretty quickly. I wasn’t sure if they were in on 4556’s dying wishes and the collusions with the guards or not. I guessed they probably were in on it and just wanted to give me the time to settle in as well as not did not wish raise unnecessary attention.

With the sun barely just coming up, a stiff kick in the ribs woke me up. No words, just a kick. I looked up, massaging my side, to see a guard standing over me. It had been the guard who had seen me enter. I had been caught, this is it, I thought. But I got up and stood up next to him. He raised his finger to his mouth. I went outside the tent. He pushed me to my knees. The other tents also had more people kneeling in front of them; at least one person from each tent. There couldn’t have been that many other intruders. This must be a regular thing. They didn’t look that scared either. A little nervous with a slight smile but not that scared. So I wasn’t. I realised this is something else. Then I saw a guard going round with a clipboard and a list. The test! Perhaps?

The guard got to me. ‘Number?’ he said. ‘4556.’ Tick! He ticked his list and walked off. It was definitely the test – that was it!

Then a sack went over my head, everything went dark and they tied my hands together in front of me. It went dark, and I hoped with every cell in my body that I wasn’t going back to the red camp or, worse, killed! They led me by tied hands in front of me, marching at a swift pace.

After an agonizing walk, in which my legs trembled the entire way, I was led up some stairs and into a room, where I was sat down and the sack was removed from over my head.

‘4556?’ A man in a black suit said. I gave a quick, slight nod before he carried on…

‘Welcome, you have been selected for the test. Your performance in training and prolonged effort for redevelopment of your character has meant we see qualities in you that mean you may be suitable to rejoin society. We believe you can pass a test to show you are no longer a threat to the ways of the Imperia. Should you pass it, you will be able to go back into the Imperial Society and reside in your new home. Your wife and son will join you there. You will just need to prove yourself during this test.’

I nodded again and swallowed.

‘Right, well, follow me,’ he commanded.

I followed him down a well-lit, clinical corridor with doors on either side and all the way along. He led me to one of the doors and told me to enter and sit at the computer. ‘This is stage one,’ he informed me.

I sat at the computer, and a woman’s voice instructed me to enter the password. The cursor blinking in the space to enter the password. But I have no idea what the password was. No one had told me about this at all. I started looking around for clues or answers. The woman’s voice boomed ‘There are no clues. You cannot find the answer on the walls and you cannot ask anyone. What do you think it will be?’ ‘It doesn’t matter what I think,’ I snapped back. ‘I am a citizen of the Imperia and I should wait to be told what it is.’ ‘Bing!’ A green tick appeared on the screen. Please enter what you would like your password to be. I typed in ‘IMPERIA’ and another green tick appeared. I then had to answer a number of multiple-choice based questions about society, which tested me on the rules that were in place. If anything was uncertain, I selected ‘Ask the Imperia leaders.’ The test informed me that I had passed. It was just about showing a lack of self and amenability.

The smartly dressed man then led me to another room. And as I tell you this, John, I know it is unpleasant but there was a new-born on the table.

The man spoke ‘This is the final test. This is the real one, in my opinion. This ultimately proves your obedience to the Imperia’s cause. In front of you is a new-born boy. His mother and father were political activists who were constantly testing the ways of the Imperia – organising mass riots and setting up anarchist cults. The baby needed to be saved and they needed to be punished. This baby will never see its parents and we will make sure of it. He is now a son of the Imperia. In such a case, we hope that we can train him well enough to become an Imperia guard one day. To set him on his way he will need an Imperia tattoo. This will be the capital I on his forehead. The symbol for the Imperia. You will give him this tattoo without question and keeping your hand still the whole time. Too much shaking or a refusal or an inadequate symbol will be a fail.’

I couldn’t believe my ears. This was horrifying and against everything I stood for. It repulsed every fibre of my body.

But if I didn’t…what would happen…maybe back to the yellow camp, red camp, even death.

The whole time he was talking, I was telling myself to act cool. Even though inside I was burning up.

He passed me the tattoo gun. My hand had a slight wobble. But I made it seem like I was ok…I wasn’t.

The baby was wriggling and crying, so I had to hold his head still with my left hand as I moved the gun closer to his head with my right. What the hell was I doing?

I forced myself to do it as the man looked at me with an inane grin on his face. ‘Go on’ he instructed. I pinned the baby boy down and inked into his forehead one vertical line and two horizontal ones at each end. I did it as quickly as possible as the baby screamed in pain. Tears were falling from his eyes. They would have from mine as well, if I had been allowed. I felt every stroke of the tattoo gun as if it was actually tattooing my soul!

Done! I knew that the man could sense my rage as he smiled back but I had done it and I had forced my hand to be still. I hoped this was not some kind of sick joke after all I had done.

‘Now you are free!’ he said.

‘You are released now, well done! You must never talk about this, the camp or anything that has happened at the camps. As far as you are aware, these camps do not exist. If we hear of you discussing any matters, you will be executed immediately. You have knowledge now of methods of control that are too great for common knowledge. You must consider your position wisely and remember that you, along with everyone else in the world, are under a control of something greater than your individual being.’ I just nodded my head. My heart was still beating!

The man went on. ‘Now walk out of those doors and towards the van parked at end of the path. Take a seat in it. It will take you to your new home.’

I sat in that van for the best part of a day before they dropped me off here about two hours ago. I have been sitting in the garden waiting for you two to walk up the path before I came to knock on this door. It’s been a wild journey, but we are all together once more and you two walking up that path was the single greatest sight in my life!

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