Chapter 1: ...in which freedom is fired upon...
My mother has been dead for a month. I feel weird, walking down these blistering, dusty streets, marching stiffly by cheering crowds, and feeling none of their elation. In this glorious reminder of life, all I am reminded of is death.
Today is Freedom Day, the day we celebrate our absolution from the morally bankrupt Relativists. Because we absolutists always have the moral high ground - we have for three generations.
We celebrate by taking to the street en-masse. Everyone is out here, from newly born babies to old grandmothers that must have seen the very first Freedom Day. Flags wave in the air, three interlinked circles stamped dark against a pure white background. White and black banners smother the already creamy buildings, strung like chains across the streets, binding the pale edifices together.
Today is also another special day; today, the first official envoy that I’ve ever seen is preparing to make contact with the heathens across the Border.
The throng of bodies rustle as the processional moves forward, searching desperately for a view. Absolutists are far too polite to push and shove, and so soft murmurs of “excuse me” and “thank you” rise into the air, meaningless pleasantries, as the crowd shifts like a fluid mosaic of heads. Guards stand impassively at regular intervals, perfectly manicured obstructions encased in crisp white uniforms with the three linked circles emblazoned over their left breasts.
I wonder what is happening in all of those heads. Whether any of them understand what it means to be alone in the world. I almost shake my head. As if. I see all the smiling faces about me without really registering them.
They remind me that I too must wear a smile on my face, and I try to put one in place, but I feel like I’m grimacing. Someone briefly makes eye contact with me, but turns away quickly, as if catching my faux pas. I try again. I’m meant to look like I want to be here, which is proving easier said than done.
I can’t really help it, with my mind wandering the way it is. My mother’s death was not a shock to me, but the pain is sharp nonetheless. You are never truly prepared to lose your mother. A month later and I still go home, hoping it’s all just a dream, and that she’s lying in her bed, waiting for me to come and help her to the kitchen. Old habits die hard, right?
I want some way to get away from it. Living in the house where she raised me for 18 years, I can’t yet separate myself from the past. I want to be one of these smiling patriots, applauding our decorated ambassador in his military uniform, but I just can’t.
Fantastic timing, considering I’m in the parade.
I make eye contact with another stranger, who looks at me more sternly. Right. Smile. I try squinting as I grimace this time. I remember being told that you can tell a real smile by a person’s eyes, and if they can’t see my eyes, who’s to say? It is sunny out, after all.
The flagpole slips in my sweaty palms and I adjust it begrudgingly. I glance up at the Pandoran flag I’m carrying. The plain scarlet cloth cuts through the traditional monochrome of Main Street, as out of place in the world of black and white as a goat among horses.
Of the thousands of students at the Central Education Facility, two were ‘randomly’ selected as ceremonial flag-bearers. My teachers probably had the best intentions when they chose me - I’m sure they intentionally chose me - because being part of something so big was sure to make me stop feeling so small and lonely. But I feel smaller, lonelier, more insignificant and singled out in this moment than I have in all my life.
I don’t want them to single me out like this and make me the object of their pity. All the sympathy in the world can’t make me right again. The moment this whole charade began still burns angrily behind my eyes, my name echoing over the PA system at school, the long walk to the office, and the principal’s speech about what an honor it was for me to be a flag bearer.
I didn’t ask for this honor and I sure don’t want it. All I wanted was to stay in my house and try to forget that this would be the first Freedom Day without my mother. I wouldn’t get to dress up in my best and go out with her to celebrate. I wouldn’t get to stay up late and sit out on the rooftop to watch the stars before bed. I wouldn’t get to hear her laugh as I fell asleep on the couch.
I wouldn’t get to hear her voice, or see her face, or watch her smile ever again. The pain of it throbs in my chest but there’s nothing I can do.
Being in this parade just makes it so much worse because I know she would have been so excited for me. Mom would have done my hair up special, helped me into my clothes, and waved like crazy from the crowd as we came marching down the road.
I almost expect to see her out there somewhere, smiling and laughing with those great blue eyes of hers twinkling in the sunlight. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking I can see her, but every time it just leaves me feeling more empty and confused. I see her in the faces of other women and it aches because I know they aren’t her and never will be.
Even though I knew she was going to die, there’s still a big empty hole that I don’t know how to fill.
But I’m in the parade and for her sake I at least want to try and make the most of it, so I stand straight and try once again to smile.
I can do this. I lift my head.
Everyone watches as we pass by wearing our pride in the height of our chins and on our crisp, clean clothes. The other people in the parade look ecstatic to be part of it, waving to the crowd in loud, wild movements and smiling brightly like the sun. I’m still struggling to keep my head above the roaring but I tell myself again: I can do this.
The procession moves steadily forward as we march in stiff co-ordinated movements marked out by the rat-a-tat-tat of a boy with a snare drum. It’s easy to move at the jaunty but measured pace, stepping in time to the beat as I and the boy next to me, holding our flags, march before the palanquin bearing the ambassador.
The ambassador is a military man - no surprises there - and he wears his uniform like a badge of honor. Solitary gold stars on either shoulder mark him as a colonel, and a gold braid loops under his right arm, colored starkly against his blindingly white clothing. Two medals perch on his left breast pocket.
The man beneath the white facade looks young, just barely thirty, with baby-faced cheeks and dark hair dropping into his eyes. They’re narrowed like he’s intentionally trying to look fierce, but he looks more like an angry child.
He must feel silly, being carried across in that simple wooden contraption. We didn’t want to offend Pandora by driving him over in a jeep since we don’t know if they have cars anymore. The effect is strange, like the ambassador is a little raj from the Befores.
I’ve seen a few pictures in our textbook of the time when the world wasn’t split like this. It’s strange to think about. How could relativists and absolutists have lived together? We’re as different as different can be. We must be or we wouldn’t be separated like this.
That’s what I’ve always been told, anyways. I guess I really have no right to say what the relativists are or aren’t, since I’ve never even seen one before, but the picture our textbooks paint of them isn’t pretty. Now, I have the chance to see if it’s true or not. Are they really moral infidels? Are they so unreasonable that we have to build a giant wall and a giant army just to protect ourselves from their raging passions? The stories we are told as children are chilling; they kill wantonly and have fanged teeth and eat children for breakfast. Most of it is superstitious nonsense, I’m sure, but I want to know for myself.
I want to make my own judgments about them, regardless of what people say they are. If the stories are true, then I’ll have no choice but to agree that they are the monsters we claim them to be, but if not...well, I’m not so sure what I’ll do.
At least the choice is mine.
Two paths lay before me. Two sides that I can take. It has to be one or the other, and with each step I come closer and closer to the decision.
The wall lies just beyond us now, the last bastion of separation between us and them. It has always been us and them, and it likely always will be. It stands there before us, strong and unfeeling, oblivious to the schism it creates, and the irreconcilable truth that the world is split in two. You have to be on one side or the other; the wall makes it so, and so it will always be no matter what I think.
Questions niggles in the back of my mind as we move forward. What side am I supposed to be on? What decision will I make? What path will I choose to take?
The procession comes to a halt just in front of the gate.
It too is strong and unfeeling but in a different way. It’s unkempt, rusty, forgotten. The dark paint is peeling like burnt skin, revealing the corroded iron flesh below.
The bystanders hold a collective breath as each half of the gate is pulled open unceremoniously. Hinges moan, and I imagine little people inside them, running all their nails against collective blackboards. For the first time today, my smile is real.
The deathly silence holds... and then the drummer boy resumes his occupation. I jolt forwards once more.
I can’t really see anything of Pandora yet, despite being so close to the gate. There are no people in the way, but the opening of the gates has churned decades worth of sand and mistrust into the air. Dust coats my nostrils with every breath.
It seems to take an eon before the dust either settles or is scooped away on the breeze and I can finally see the other side. The sight that meets my eyes is not what I expected.
There are no cheering crowds. There are no street decorations. There isn’t even a street. A few tattered shacks stand - well, cower really - about 20 meters from the gate, and from there on, makeshift shelters spread out for as far as my eyes can see. The most patriotic thing in sight is a tattered red cloth holding someone’s cardboard walls together.
It looks nothing like the Athanasia. In fact, it really couldn’t be any more different if it tried. The landscape is a total patchwork of buildings with no two places the same. It’s almost dizzying trying to figure out what belongs to what. It’s a riot of elements as if someone took the ruins of a city and built on it with whatever mismatched materials they could find.
Pandora is everything Athanasia is not. It’s wild and without rhyme or reason, not like the smooth rows of white buildings on this side of the gate. The place is structureless, and I can almost believe the crazy tales people tell about the people on this side of the gate - the pandies as they’re called. I can feel the insanity of this place in the very air. Like a deep knot a tension that radiates pain throughout the body, this place exudes danger.
It’s quiet, so very quiet. The only sound comes from us, the remnants of cheers rising from beyond the wall, accompanied by the beat of the drum and my heart thumping in my chest.
I can’t see anyone. The drum hesitates, a skipped heartbeat, as we await our welcome. It’s tense and uncomfortable, and I wish somebody would scream or something, but the crowd only turns and follows our progress through the gate. I’m five steps away...
Everyone continues to hold their breath as tension crackles in the air. My teacher’s instructions float vacantly through my head.
Four...Under all circumstances, we are to keep marching. I keep marching. My smile wavers.
Isn’t someone supposed to be here?
Three...It must be thirty degrees celsius out here, but I feel cold. Something isn’t right, and I’m scanning the tattered buildings, looking for some sign of what is about to happen. Something is about to happen, I can feel it in the air.
Two… I’m taking a deep breath as my eyes dart back and forth. I make eye contact with the last guard in the line, whose pale eyes seem to bulge out of his head. He must be holding his breath, too. He is the last thing I see of Athanasia.
One...I step over the boundary, and my sign finally arrives. Two gunshots resonate through the air, filling the strained silence with a deadly crack of sound. The ambassador falls out of his hand-held chariot, blood blossoming on his chest, staining the white jacket crimson. Everything goes blurry and slows as his face registers shock, then pain, then nothing. Someone screams and suddenly it all clicks back into place as my head spins. The ambassador is dead.
Chaos erupts, and all I can remember how to do is run.