11th August 2062
I feel trapped as I wait. At 11:56, shadows blanket the room. Outside the paned windows, a magpie hops across the roof opposite. Vera should be here already – but with every moment, my hope grows stronger that she won’t come.
Finally, I can’t stand it anymore. I lift my legs over the side of the bed before heaving myself onto the floor. The bed springs wince beneath my weight. A black droneboard waits in the shadows. As silent as it is, you wouldn’t expect the whirring noise it makes when it revs to life and the four drones beneath it rise it – and me – into the air. A fun alternative to my wheelchair.
I haul myself onto the droneboard’s black seat and bite my lips. My fingers drum against the control panel, drumming, drumming, drumming. And all the while I wait, wait, wait. Midnight comes and goes – and then I hear it: footsteps in the hallway.
“Brilliant,” Vera greets me. “You’re on the droneboard already. That saves us some time.”
I don’t bother asking where she’s been. Her hair is messed up and pillow creases leave red marks on her cheeks. “We can’t go,” I tell her instead. I remember the way her face lit up when I agreed to come with her, and I don’t look her in the eyes now, fearing what I’ll see. Instead, I watch the tapping of my fingers.
It was lunch when she suggested it. “You know how we’ve always wanted to know-” She lowered her voice, “If the Government is telling the truth? About the City of Dreams and all that – about the other European countries...”
“I have an idea.”
“Please tell me it’s sensible.”
“The Library has to have some archives – I read about it.”
Ignoring my question as she shot me a glare, she continued, “There might be some forbidden books down there – some we could read. They might tell us more about our history before the climate activists formed Notanda. I dare us to find them.”
A brief pause later, I asked, ”Down there? How would you know where the archives are?”
Vera shrugged, laughter sparkling in her eyes. “Archives are known to be in basements.”
I raised my eyebrows but didn’t argue. “And when would you want to raid the Library?”
“This evening.” Great. There’d be no evading this one.
Now, I don’t dare look up – else I might lose my nerve. “We can’t go,” I repeat. “Breaking and entering the Library – it’s illegal. Who knows what the consequences will be? Who knows what they’ll do to us?”
Vera frowns, but her smile remains. She’s always smiling: perhaps I admire her for it. “Stop worrying, Mar,” she whispers. “It’ll be fun.”
“And entirely foolish.” My voice is cold, but I don’t take my words back. A dare isn’t worth the risk. Too easily, I could be separated from my family. Too easily, punishment could be inflicted. Humans are so fragile - but they always think they can conquer the world.
Vera tilts her head to the side. The darkness paints shadows across her face, and moonlight tints her hair silver. “It’s not just about the dare,” she tells me after a bit. “It’s about truth and discovery – and fear.”
I raise one delicate eyebrow, “What are you afraid of?”
“What are we all taught to be afraid of? What are we all taught to hate?”
A short silence hangs between us, filled with an answer neither of us will speak. I don’t know how, but I’m sure we’re thinking the same thing. I visualise a map in my mind, with little Notanda encircled by the large European forces and, to the North, the Baltic Sea. So small. So insignificant. How could such a little country survive amidst fiendish countries? Because Europe needs us. It knows we have the solution to living with the world, Teacher Lara’s words spool through my head. Trashed streets, arguing Governments, hot cities, monstrous cars, climate change. Remember that. Remember.
If we were happy, we wouldn’t need to be reminded. Does she think we aren’t? And if they know we have the solution, why don’t they use it?
I feel Vera’s eyes on me until at long last I break the silence, “Don’t you think important books would be under lock and key – or else long burned?”
“It wouldn’t hurt to look.” Her lips pull up in a cheeky smile – typical. She waggles her head a little as she continued, “They won’t hurt two innocent, naive youngsters.”
We both know ‘they’ means the Parliament – or in other words the renown Government officials: the Guardians.
“Mmm,” I murmur.
She shrugs again. “It’s a beautiful night. Don’t you want to be free?” Her eyes are expectant. She knows just how to convince me, and I sigh as I finally agree.
“Fine.” It might be the word that seals my fate.
We edge down the hallway towards the front door with its panelled wood and two interrupting slits of window. Vera’s hand hovers over the door handle for a minute as her gaze darts to the mirror along the wall. “Aren’t we a pair?” she quips, her voice a whisper. She grins at her freckled nose while I stare, my face empty of emotion. My green eyes, set in a pale almond face, meet Vera’s blue ones. In silent agreement, we turn.
Full of energy, Vera bounds to the door, flings it open and throws her arms to the sides as if to embrace the night. “Warmth,” she breathes.
And freedom. Like a dragonfly, I buzz up behind her shoulder, my breath blowing into her hair.
She grins, and it catches on. A slight smile plays on her lips; plays on mine – excited to make an appearance. We slip through the front yard, the bough of an apple tree a faint silhouette above our heads, before scurrying down the street in the pitch darkness. Vera holds onto my hand, her fingers warm and clammy.
“We’re thieves and we’re fugitives!” she laughs as we turn onto Pine Alley and her fingers tighten on mine. Moonlight trickles down on the path – silver illusions. There’s something calm about the air, reminiscent of laughter and children’s whispers. I remember a dark room full of five and six-year-olds. It was still before the accident, so I sat cross-legged on the floor, waiting for Vera to start the next Chinese whisper. “Do you love me?” she whispered, and my cheeks flushed as I passed the message on to Karen – my red-haired ex-best-friend – who giggled into her hands.
A year later, Vera’s question had changed. “Do you trust me?” she asked in the dead of night, sitting on my bed, a Chinese whisper just for me. There were no other children around to see how I froze. Had I become so detached that she couldn’t tell how much I loved her? I clamped my hands on the edge of my pillowcase, feeling as caged in by my blankets as by people’s judgement.
“She shouldn’t have run onto the streets,” some said. “Can’t she use a wheelchair instead of the droneboard? Such a waste of electricity.”
I was a waste.
And while daylight reigned, the villagers seemed to show it in every glance, every whisper, and every nudge of their elbows. I was a circus act. I was different.
I’m pulled back to the present by Vera’s hand slipping from mine. It feels symbolic and my breath catches, although I mask my unease. She smiles, oblivious to the memories still flickering behind my eyelids. “Race you.” The words are barely more than a whisper. I watch her stumble over patches of uneven ground; watch her figure turn grey when the clusters of hazel grove and coniferous pine hide the moon. Something flutters in my chest. My veins seem to thrum as my fingers dart to the joystick.
The past will not ruin the present.
Night alerts all my senses. The air feels sultry, and above the trees rustle. Below, the floor is a soft and dusty red. My lips break out into a smile as I breathe in and my eyes shutter closed for a second. When I look up again, my sister’s running figure is doing a disappearing act in the shadow of the trees. This is Night, I think, and I’m determined to enjoy it. I jolt the joystick forward.
The droneboard and I shoot forward. Faster. Faster. It is a mantra already, thrumming inside my head. Faster.
There are no bumps when you drive on air, and I catch up with Vera within seconds. The D-board vibrates as wind buffets against us. Vera’s pants and the whirring of the rotor blades interrupt the quiet, yet calm spreads through my arms, warming my fingers. Who couldn’t call Night a friend when moonlight alights on the weaving blades of grass?
I grin like a maniac as gusts slew against my cheeks and through the soft fabric of my cotton shirt. Still, I can’t stop. The D-board accelerates a little more, a little more, and the wind picks up, waging a war against me. It cuts at my cheeks like a million shards of ice, each touching down upon my cheeks, burning. Why does the cold burn? And why is it so cold, all of a sudden, in the middle of August?
My chapped lips are set on fire. My hoodie flaps behind me, faint against the roar of the wind. Still, my senses catch every noise; every sound; every movement. A few metres ahead, the library peers out at us like a white ghost from behind a few trees. For a moment, I close my eyes and surrender to speed. Even on two working feet, fastness hadn’t been safe – but this was freedom, this was letting loose. Here I could cut myself from the cage of society; here with no-one to see but Vera.
A whoop hollers into the night, echoed closely by my sister. How I want the moment to never end, and the echoes of our excitement to ring in my ears again and again; elicit smiles and triumph again and again! Enthralled, I wait a couple more seconds – longer, longer – before slowing down,
To the right, the library doors await - a bright, flashy red.
The plain, practical black letters spelling, ‘L I B R A R Y’ hide in shadow, the edges glinting a slight gold from the lantern lights in front of us. The wind dies down. The D-board stops, but time doesn’t. Another moment over; another memory.
I wait for Vera to catch up, still grinning, but when she stops beside me, her back straight as she tries to catch her breath, I wonder how her legs feel, alive and exhilarated. Something twinges in my heart. I quickly push it down.
“What do we say if they ask us what we’re looking for?” she asks suddenly, eyes round.
“It’s none of their business.” My voice sounded gruff.
For a moment, her eyes narrow. Then she huffs a laugh, pursing her lips. The sound still escapes. “What?” I ask.
“I found the perfect excuse.” Her eyes shine amber from the lantern light – her irises are bright rings under the shadow of her eyelids, dotted with speckles of silver from the moon. “We’re researching the life and ailment of arthritic pine trees.”
I shake my head as a grin slides onto my face, “Ridiculous. I can simply order a fantasy book – I’ve been looking forward to it for a while.” Out of the thousands of fantasy books in the library, they didn’t have this one – and seeing as the library has the only public computers in the village-
“You’ve got no imagination.”
She has no idea how wrong she is, but I don’t correct her. “But more realism instead,” I tease.
Vera shrugs, “I’d choose imagination every time.”
“I know you would.” So would I.
Vera whirls around to face away from me, her shoulders turning dark as they are silhouetted against the light of the two lampposts just ahead, at the entrance to the Library’s gravel drive. At a brisk pace, she sets off down it, her footsteps shallow thuds. Her hand slips onto the Library door’s brass handle. The hinges have been oiled in the past days – they make no noise as the door swings open. Light spills out onto the muddy doormat, disrupted only by Vera’s slim form as she steps over the threshold onto a plush orange rug. Beyond, the corridor continues, glowing golden, small electric candles lit inside sconces along the walls.
The librarian sits at a steel-and-bronze desk with small carvings of dragons and pixies along the sides. She raises thin eyebrows at us, her face pale and freckled. “Names?” Boredom seeps through every letter. Like a hawk, I watch as Vera steps forward.
“Vera and Marlene Rae.” Vera’s fingers fidget with the hem of her cardigan. A small red patch appears on the back of her neck. I force myself to stay still as the librarian’s gaze drifts to me. Does Vera, too, feel as if a hole is being burned into her skull? I purse my lips.
" Marlene wanted to order a fantasy book on the Computer-”
“Come back tomorrow. The Computer goes off at the same time as the electric curfew.”
“Even though it’s in the Library?”
The librarian dips her head, “Yes.” We hover in the hallway, uncertain, and exchange glances. The librarian sighs, “Since you’re not leaving, I suppose you have some other business here?”
“Just wanted to find ourselves some more books. I’ve run out,” Vera flashes a dimpled smile.
“Hurry along now. Don’t be too long.” The librarian sighs, “Although my shift will be over in a jiffy anyway.” Like an afterthought, she adds, “Do you want to tell me the name of your book?”
“No, that’s alright.”
The librarian shrugs. Perhaps she just wants something to do when she starts rifling through one of her drawers. A little colour flares in Vera’s cheeks as she turns, her footsteps brisk. “Let’s go find out about those pine trees,” Vera whispers, her face haunted from the flame of a candle nearby.
I raise my eyebrows and shake my head as we hurry away. A few candles flicker, their flames dancing, enclosed by glass. I slide forward behind her, barely hearing the whirr of the rotor blades beneath me. Vera whistles a soft tune, and I don’t know how she manages to relax, shaping her lips into song. Every nerve in my back feels tense – strained. Alert. Vera pauses for a moment, though she takes the tune up again quickly – a song about a woman who a queen encaged after finding her trying to get to the king, her lover. Its morose tone sweeps through the corridor, and the candle brackets gleam inside their glass cages. Golden.
There is no one in front and no one behind, yet I can’t stop glancing back. We reach the intersection at the end of the hallway: one corridor leads to either side of us. Small muddy footprints sweep to the left. I wonder which other teenagers have walked here – have even attempted the same as we are about to. I can almost imagine the ghosts of other footsteps on the tiles and see the soft swinging of moving arms, some with watches glinting on their wrists. What consequences have they faced? This is not just any dare, I remind myself. Still the unease beats through my chest like a winged faerie.
At least any other teenagers wouldn’t have been afraid. They’d have been thrilled. I can’t tell if it’s a good or bad thing – or something in-between.
A red chain blocks the path to the right, the tiny white sign in the middle reading, “Only for Library crew.” Interesting word choice, Crew, I muse.
My focus sharpens as Vera steps over the chain without looking back. I shoot a furtive glance around me. Nothing. The D-board slides forwards to take Vera’s place. I take a deep breath, forcing my fingers to relax, one by one. Vera takes a few steps forward.
And that’s when I hear it. Footsteps. “Run,” I whisper. Vera doesn’t hesitate to obey, thinking this all a game, and my fingers jolt against the joystick. I stay a few steps behind Vera, but our pace is agonisingly slow. I shoot glances back over my shoulder. I check the corridor. Vera pants, too loud - too loud! I want to drag her onto my vehicle and race us out of here because I know whatever the consequences will be, they won’t be pleasant.
And there are always consequences.
I swallow the burning feeling in my throat. Vera rushes down the stairs, grinning, but I know I won’t be quick enough. It takes time to lever yourself down. The decision is made in a split second. I hiss, “Go!”
But now Vera hears the footsteps too, thundering after us down the hallway. She hesitates at the tone of my voice, and she must see the panic in my eyes because she stops halfway down the flight of stairs.
But I can’t let her wait for me. She hovers there, her arms rigid by her sides, as fragile as a faery. “I’ll stay,” she tells me, crossing her arms. It would be so easy to hurt her.
“No,” I refute. She doesn’t budge. “I dare you to go. Vera? I mean it. Let me deal with whoever’s coming.”
Vera clenches her jaw. “Come with me.”
“I can’t turn easily and fight on a staircase.”
“Then I’ll fight with you.”
“You’ll do no such thing. You’ll check the archives the way you planned.” I force my lips to curve into a mischievous grin. “This will be just another twist in our dare – an adventure.”
And strictly, it isn’t a lie. Kind of. My throat constricts, but I need her to go. I need her to hide or find a way out. The footsteps sound closer, and I will be caught so she can escape.
Finally – finally – Vera turns tail. “Catch you later,” she call-whispers.
I blink as I turn my sights to the hallway. Maybe I can be a distraction-
.The footsteps stop as a man in red uniform – I shudder – slows to a halt in the mouth of the corridor. He smirks, “Why don’t you follow her?”
My eyes travel over his face: eyes hidden by sunglasses, a lopsided black hat and a clipped beard. He has a loping gait as he walks a few steps closer. “I said why don’t you follow her?” He leers, exposing small white teeth. I imagine his eyes to be a dark and brooding brown, so dark they could swallow light.
I swallow, trying to think up something clever, but the words die on my lips. My eyes never leave his face, and his smile widens – as if he knows something I don’t. “You’ve been suspicious since you were seven.” He chuckles, “You’re an interesting figure, Marlene, with your face as cold as ice.”
I try not to react at his boldness, his – is it honesty? Blunt, direct truth.
“And you are?” I ask quietly.
“A worker. An adult. A husband. A multitude of things.” He glances down at his watch. “Vera-” My mouth goes dry at her name on his lips, “won’t find anything down there. She’ll be up in a few minutes. She keeps looking over her shoulder to see if you’ve come yet – or maybe if someone else has come for her. So brave.”
I stare at the stranger, my heartbeat pounding like a song in my mind. A minute passes. Perhaps two. He tilts his head, “You’d be a good actress, I think.” His hand reaches out for me. His laughter sounds hollow when I recoil, and I force myself to stay still as he slips a white piece of paper into the pocket of my t-shirt. I look down at the white ticket, resting there among the folds of cotton blue... And when I look up he’s walking away. I swear he’s smiling.
“Five seconds till your sister appears!” he calls over his shoulder, his fingers twirling into a fist at his sides. He turns to walk backwards, and his face is a painting: a portrait of a villain with a set of lips quirked up at the sides and lines creasing a shadowed forehead. A candle flickers out as he walks past it.
I count in my head– out of fear or curiosity, I don’t know. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. A hand taps my shoulder. When I look back, my eyes are level with Vera’s, but while mine feel tired, hers are shining brightly despite the dimly lit hallway.
“Find anything?” It sounds like a dull statement.
“Did you?” Another candle puffs out inside its sconce in the curve of the stairwell.
Vera nods, “A few tidbits. Look at these badges.” I breathe in deeply, trying to overcome the fear pounding like shards of ice through my veins. Vera tips her head to the side, “Who was that?”
I shake my head, “No one of importance.” Except that he’d known me, even though we’d never met. He had to have watched me – he was probably still watching us now.
Vera curls my fingers around a dusty, metallic circle. When I turn it over, the face of the badge is inscribed with a large S the colour of blood. It leaves grey streaks on my palm: slashes of dust and decay.
Side by side, we hurried out of the library as the rest of the candles flickered out on by one. I continued to grip the badge until it dug into my skin; until it overshadowed the man still speaking inside my head – the same words over and over.
Face as cold as ice.
I shudder at the Library entrance – the August air has turned cold just for me. Vera bounces off into the Night, but I wait by the threshold under the last light still on in our country. Nimbly, my fingers pull the card out.
Black, curling script appears, flowing across the card. Electronic paper – clever. I gnaw my lips as I read the message:
The badge is your destiny, it reads, and a logo appears on the right: a logo I know only too well.
I have one year left before I lose my family – and there’s no one I can tell.