Q1. Do you believe in God?
I stare at the exam paper in front of me, puzzled and unsure how I should answer. The classroom around me is silent, except for the scratching of lead pencils on paper. My classmates scribble down their answers naively, without worry, but I don’t. I know this test isn’t a normal school exam. For fifteen minutes, I’ve sat here wondering what to write. My teacher, Miss Barder, who sits at the front of the room behind her old, worn, wooden desk, is staring at me with a strange, imploring expression on her face. I’ve seen this look before. Whenever she asks us a question in the classroom and we don’t know the answer, she gives us this look.
It means, Think, think, think. Think very carefully.
Frowning, I look back down. The first question provides only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Normally, I would circle ‘no’ without hesitation for I have never been religious. My family and I are people of the land. We grow our own food, raise our own livestock, and we take care of each other. God has never helped us and never will. We rely on our own skills to survive.
But something inside me says to lie on this test. My instincts, I think. They want me to lie. My instincts sense danger in this seemingly innocuous white piece of parchment with a dozen typed questions printed on it. For question one, ’Do you believe in God,’ I circle ‘yes’.
I feel I need to appear as innocent as possible in this test. Innocent and willing, like a Christian person would be—my best friend Clara is Christian, and she is the epitome of all things good, pure, and humble.
They will want me to be a willing person who does exactly what I am told to do.
Q2. How, in your opinion, should life be lived?
I shake my head disbelievingly. This isn’t a test of knowledge, wit, or even character. Glancing up from my exam, I look over to Clara, who is watching me with a slight smile on her pretty face.
What is this? I mouth, holding up the paper with raised eyebrows.
She grins, shrugs, and then looks back at her test. I just want to go home and get out of this hellhole that is still classified as school. So I fill in the rest of the answers carefully, making sure that I sound like a calm, easily manipulable person—which is the exact opposite of what I really am. I am stubborn, unwilling, and set in my ways—in reality, probably just a normal student.
The government issued this test, and since our country’s leaders changed three years ago, even something as simple as a school exam can be deceptive and dangerous. I haven’t seen them hurt people, yet. I figure it is only a matter of time though, given they have indirectly killed their citizens in the past by creating laws that people could not cope with. The death of civilians is simply collateral damage—regrettable but necessary for the good of the country. Or that is what we were told.
The government agents call themselves the Biocentrics, a word given to people who view all living things as equals. Plants, animals, and humans are all equally valued in their mind. Appreciating that everything in the world is just as important as another is a concept that sounds romantic and beautiful. However, the government officials aren’t Biocentrics. They have twisted and manipulated that word to mean something completely different. Something evil. Every person in my hometown fears them and their radical ideas.
After half an hour, I have finished my test, answering each question with a simple lie. Miss Barder calls for us to put our pencils down and to bring the tests to her desk. I stare down at my completed sheet, wondering if I should have filled it out at all. My other classmates begin filing out of the room after dropping off their exam papers. Eventually, I stand up and hesitantly head to the front of the classroom, clutching the paper to my chest like I’m about to give away a piece of my soul.
Miss Barder has been forced to teach us only limited mathematics and English: basic lessons we learnt during primary school. The classroom walls used to be covered in colourful posters sporting mathematical formulas, algebraic problems, poetic techniques, and proper grammar terms but they had to be removed long ago because the government believes our old education system was too complex. The walls are now blank white, and the room feels cold and clinical.
The Biocentrics probably have their reasons for enforcing limited math and English knowledge, but I don’t know what that reason is, yet.
“How’d you go, Freya?” Miss Barder says, taking my paper from me as I hold it out. She taps our answered tests on the surface of her desk to form a neat pile, and then looks at me with a grave expression.
“This is madness,” I say to her. “What was the point of that stupid test?”
“Shh, Freya,” she says in a low voice. She casts a wary glance outside the classroom door where the newly placed security guard is standing. “You know I agree, but don’t say things like that. You’ll get into trouble.”
I sure would. The security guard who now patrols the corridors of our school is a huge, gorilla-like man who carries an electric prodder that is generally used on cattle. The kids at school have nicknamed him Frog because his mouth looks stretched and too wide for his face. He’s an aggressive, merciless man who seems to take pleasure in zapping a child who is running a minute late for class or flogging another who hasn’t done their homework. Frog, like every other horrible government enforcement in town, was placed at school to monitor the students’ compliance with the new rules.
With a snort of disgust, I leave the classroom with Clara and we walk past Frog, keeping our eyes lowered to the ground. Just looking at him can sometimes earn you a zap in the rear end.
Students in their rust red coloured blazers, blue pants, and white blouses are filing out of the school building. The school used to be full of computer offices, science labs, art rooms, and an expansive library, but the contents of the rooms were destroyed to make space for new subjects. We are no longer taught history, geometry, or art. Now we are forced to learn a different curriculum. A government approved curriculum, which teaches us how to survive in the wilderness: how to make snares, how to hunt, how to find fresh water. Our old classrooms are filled with intense obstacle courses or equipment to set animal traps.
I hate it. I never thought I could loathe something that destroyed parts of my dull, old school but I do now. Other students enjoy the physical, challenging subjects and, at first, so did I, but lately the lessons have become more brutal and I feel as though we are being prepared for something. I just don’t know what it is.
We exit the main school building, and Clara and I begin walking home together. A few of the old posters there were plastered over every wall, lamp post, and shop window just over a year ago are a constant reminder of how much our world has changed since the Biocentrics came into power. A small amount of these changes had done good things, but the majority of them had caused nothing but fear, sadness, and eventually death.
The government in power prior to the Biocentrics had exploited Australia’s natural resources, only concerned about what riches they could harvest, and showing no care for the environment.
The people of Australia had seen the natural world dying around them. I was too young to really understand how bad it was, but my parents often revisit the memories of those times, when they’d watched the world descending into chaos. Small, tropical islands had been flooded because of the melting polar caps, and the inhabitants of those islands had drowned. Entire countries now cease to exist—for the rising oceans had consumed anything at a low level. Once, my own country had been an enormous continent, but the rising oceans had halved the size of the once huge land mass. My once inland home town, Thesal is now close to the ocean.
The planet had watched as dozens of incredible species died out: the rhinoceros, tigers, elephants, and plenty of others. No amount of conservation efforts had been able to stop their extinction. I’d never seen the creatures personally, but I’d watched documentaries on the television about them. That is, when televisions had still been allowed.
Pollution worldwide had been at an all-time high. Crops hadn’t been growing. People and livestock alike had been dying from malnourishment because farmers weren’t able to grow enough food. Eventually, when they weren’t able to offer even the most basic items like bread and milk, the supermarkets closed down.
The economy had crashed.
People had stopped working because they had to spend their days scavenging for food. My town was plagued by drought, then flood, and then drought again for years before people became truly worried that the earth was dying. Even for the ever-changing climate of Australia, the weather had been unusually strange. The media was constantly reporting on the catastrophic events. People were convinced it was the end of the world, but no one knew how to stop it.
Nature had been failing because of human interference, and when the rich people of the world had finally understood what it felt like to be starving, everyone decided it was time for change.
When Election Day had come, most of the country had voted for the new Biocentric party, the members of which had promised to put an end to the suffering of our world. We had trusted them.
That had been a big mistake…
During their first year in power, the Biocentrics had made small changes to help the planet. They’d promoted recycling and the use of solar, water, and air to power electricity. In each town they had placed a man or woman who would go about the streets, calling out and encouraging people to think about the planet and to do all they could to improve the state of the world. These people were named ‘criers’ and Thesal’s crier is a man named Holland, who was once a well-liked man, but is only ever the bearer of bad news.
As Clara and I walk in friendly silence, I snatch hold of a faded, red poster that is stuck to a street post and rip it down. The posters were plastered over town nearly two years ago. All of them have a picture of a car’s exhaust pumping out black acid and the slogan reads “Driving towards the death of our planet.” The troubles had started a few weeks after the posters had been put up, when the criers told everyone that petrol and gas would no longer be available and people were prohibited from driving. People were shocked by this drastic change, yet, at the same time, there was really no other choice but to take extreme measures to stop pollution, and no one had been able to afford fuel anyhow.
The penalty for driving a car now is imprisonment for life.
Nowadays, people walk or ride bikes, and nearly everyone owns a well-broken horse. Everything from transporting goods to the weekly milk run is done by horse and carriage.
A few months after the prohibition of cars, the Save the World ad campaign had hit the television, radio, and internet stating that if the natural world was going to be protected, it would have to be a quick and radical movement. The Biocentrics told us that electricity was killing the natural world, polluting the air, and contributing to global warming. Directly after that broadcast, without any warning whatsoever, they’d switched off the power all over the country.
I remember that event well enough. I remember sitting at home eating dinner with my family and all of the lights suddenly dying out, and the room being cloaked in black. When we’d tried to ring the police for help, the phone line was dead. I’d gone to bed that night, listening to my parents cursing the new government, saying things like, they’ve gone too far this time and we should have known this was coming. Anything that needs power to run is no longer used. People go cold during the freezing winter months, and drink dirty dam water in the blistering heat of summer.
Once, this simple way of living had seemed like a lovely idea to me, but modern day people had been thrown into the deep end too quickly.
So now, naturally, anything that the new government issues makes me edgy and suspicious. The test we just took was not a simple school exam. It is something more than that, and it frightens me.
Clara walks along, not looking at all disgusted by the dirty streets of Thesal. She sees the good in everything. We are exact opposites, Clara and I—she being sweet, kind and patient while I am hard-hearted and testy. Clara is a petite girl with short brown hair. She is almost pixie-like in appearance and her family lives in town and runs a bakery. They had struggled for a while, trying to learn how to bake bread without electric ovens but eventually they’d gotten the hang of it and had built a wood-fired oven. Bread is one of the cheapest food items to buy or barter for these days. Since the supermarkets closed down and no one has a cent to their name, people in town have resorted to trading goods.
We amble along the soulless street of our once beautiful country town. There is rubbish piled in the gutters and skittering along the street because garbage trucks no longer empty the overflowing bins. Desperate people turned robbers have broken into nearly every store on the main street and left the front windows shattered and the glass strewn across the pavement in glittering jagged shards. Abandoned cars sit in a disorganised fashion over the street and up grimy alleyways. Some have even crashed into buildings. I assume the cars were crashed on purpose. People who knew they couldn’t survive in a world without electricity and technology had ended their lives shortly after the electricity had been turned off.
“Don’t look,” I say to Clara in a detached voice. “There’s another body in the old supermarket doorway.”
“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” Clara says. “Should we check it?”
Clara and I used to check the bodies of the starving people, hopeful that they were alive, but we stopped eventually. When a human gets to the point where they cannot stand up and their eyes are dull and misty, not even the best care will save them. Given hospitals have closed down and medicines are no longer being manufactured, the sick, elderly, and starved simply die.
I wince as I see that grey rats are gnawing the nubs of the body’s fingers. “No. This one’s well and truly gone.”
When I was younger, Thesal bustled with life and activity. People were always smiling, chattering, and laughing while they shopped in boutique clothing stores or took their yachts out to sail on the lake. On Friday nights, the townsfolk would be cruising around the streets, dining in nice restaurants, or having a beer at the pub. There were colourful, shiny decorations put up during the Christmas season and social, entertaining events were held often to draw the community together. I hardly recognise the place anymore. It’s such a grim, depressing counterpart to my old town. Our pampered, rich town has been reduced to grovelling beggars.
Clara and I leave Thesal as the sun begins to descend in the sky, and we start up the gravel road towards my home. Clara always walks me home these days, and her late working parents pick her up in the evening after closing the bakery. There are too many desperate people on the streets and it isn’t a place for any young girl to be walking alone. People do horrible things when their life no longer holds any meaning.
I inhale the earthen scent of the open country and the crisp eucalypt in the air. Gumtrees line the long, straight driveway and the dirt road is dappled with shadow and light. The paddocks around my family’s small, stone farmhouse are lush and the sheep in them look fat and healthy. Seeing us, the sheep scatter away from the fences, baaing loudly and we laugh at how silly they sound. The newborn lambs race to their mothers, wagging their tails and positively screaming baas, before plunging onto their knees to feed. There isn’t much to laugh about these days but the sheep always make us giggle. Dark clouds are making their way over the sky and I can smell a storm coming on the wind. A warm breeze flies by, picking up strands of my honey blonde hair and blowing it into a tangle.
My family are lamb farmers and we have lived on this property since I was a baby. The Biocentric rulings haven’t affected us much, for my family has a fireplace for warmth; a dam for water; a horse for riding, carting, and ploughing; and plenty of sheep for meat. I’ve always found it strange that we were allowed to keep any of our animals after the Biocentrics took over, since real Biocentrics do not approve of owning animals much less riding or using a horse for work. In my mind, real Biocentrics—the ones who respect all life as equal—wouldn’t approve of horse riding or owning any animal because it means the human views the animal as its inferior, its slave. It is those kinds of inconsistencies that make me suspicious. Many, many things the Biocentrics do contradict their so-called beliefs…
But the suffering of people had occurred well before the Biocentrics took over. The Biocentrics have changed many things that have affected people’s lives in a bad way, but it was the government before them that had caused malnourishment, starvation, and disease— they’d made planet earth suffer, and when planet earth suffers so does everything else living on it.
I can’t hate the Biocentrics for all they have done. They’d told us that banning electricity and the use of vehicles and fossil fuels would help the natural world heal, and they were right on that count. Around Australia, pollution levels have plummeted. Crops are growing again. Animals are thriving. My family farm, which was a barren dusty wasteland when I was a young girl, is now full of life and constantly sprouts sweet, green grass. The natural world is indeed healing itself. But humans are suffering.
I know my mother is home because there is smoke pouring from the chimney. It’s nearing the middle of winter and although it never snows here, it gets cold enough to light a fire each evening. We jump up the stairs onto the creaky veranda and I open the front door just as rain begins pattering down outside and the wind kicks up with a howl, scattering stray leaves and creating a willy-willy of dust. I close the door behind me gently.
I don’t need to announce my being home. My mother is standing over the fireplace in the living room, stirring a pot that wafts off the delicious smell of lamb stew. My home is a typical, old-fashioned farmhouse. It has stone floors in every room, timber lined walls, an open plan living, dining and kitchen area, and three small bedrooms. One bedroom is for my mother and father, one is for me, and one is for my older brother, Jack. Jack usually walks home with Clara and me, but he had to stay behind today to help the teachers sort out the tests we all completed. Jack is a year older than I am, but wants to be a teacher so rather than leaving town he remained at school to be an apprentice. Despite so many negative things happening, it’s nice to know my brother still sticks to his dreams.
“Hi, girls. How was school?” Mum asks.
“Average. We had to take a test that was about nothing in particular.”
I’m surprised to see my usually composed mother drop her soup ladle into the pot of steaming stew. She suddenly looks flustered but manages to fish out the ladle and hook it onto the edge of the pot. She wipes her hands clean on her apron and tucks a loose strand of blonde hair behind her ear. Looking troubled, she wanders into the kitchen and starts preparing for dinner.