Chapter One: The Ceremony
As I walk out of my classroom and into the city streets, I have to shield my eyes. The neighboring buildings glistened so brightly in the synthetic sun, it blinded me at every turn. I look up into the vast sky, searching for the culprit of my temporary distortion, but I can’t see beyond the towering edifices.
I had lived in Concord my entire life, but could never get used to the grandeur of the place. The painite-lined streets, the diamond encrusted lampposts, the buildings made of pure gold- it was overwhelming. But the Syndicate loved extravagance, and they manifested our city’s wealth in the most ostentatious way. Infrastructure seemed like such an insignificant thing to be concerned with when people were dying outside our walls at this very moment, but I would never say so aloud. I valued my life too much.
Instead, I smooth my dark curls and straighten the folds of my skirt, repressing a sigh as I look at the plain material. Everyone in Concord had to wear the same crisp, white uniform. It was supposed to symbolize our purity, the status with which we were to be associated, but it just seemed an excessive way to boast our prestige in typical Syndicate fashion. It was ridiculous if you asked me, but of course no one ever did.
I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. I am considered a suit, after all. I could have been rejected into the contaminated wastelands like so many before me, but the Syndicate sensed something in me; something that deemed me “suitable” to remain in Concord. I know I should be grateful they chose me to live in the safe confines of the dome, but I can’t repress my guilt knowing that others are suffering on the outside while I lived a life of luxury.
I push the thought from my mind. Questioning the Syndicate’s methods, even in the privacy of your own mind, was an indisputable way of getting yourself locked up. Lucky for me no one had picked up on my dissidence, or I would have already been restrained.
I take a deep breath to calm the incessant shaking in my hands, and begin my journey to the center of town, knowing Cora would kill me if I made her late. It’s really a moot point, considering the expanse of the dome isn’t very wide and it only takes a few minutes to get from the medical building to the square. The more diplomatic citizens, like the governing members of Concord called the Syndicate, are permitted to use the self-driving monorail that hoovers just above the streets, propelling them from point A to point B in a matter of seconds. Apparently they were too irreproachable to walk like the rest of us. I bite the inside of my jaw until it bleeds, silently reprimanding myself for allowing these cynical thoughts to resurface.
“Kai, are you even listening to me?” Cora asks, annoyed.
“What?” I ask. I hadn’t heard a word she’d said, and she knew it.
“I said that I can’t wait until we get our white coats!” she gushes, her irritation replaced by unmistakable elation.
I fight the urge to roll my eyes. Cora and I had been walking together since we started medical school a few years ago, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were friends. Listening to her incessant chatter was more out of habit than actual intrigue. Trying to hold a genuine conversation with her was like trying to chop wood with a feather- exhausting and futile. Maybe it wouldn’t be so grueling if it wasn’t the same mantra every day- chipper Cora giving me a countdown to the day that we would become certified physicians. I grimace at the idea, knowing there was nothing I could do about it.
“I don’t understand why you’re so excited. We’ve always known this day was coming,” I snap. Her exuberance was more irritating today than usual. I knew I should be proud of such a milestone, but I found myself increasingly more sullen as graduation day approached. My entire life I had been trained for this job and this job alone, with no say in whether I actually wanted to be a doctor. Now, almost two decades after my development, I was nearing the end of my trainings and it made me feel like I was asphyxiating. There would be no going back, no chance to find who I really was and what I really wanted out of life. My future was set in stone.
“Have you ever wondered what things would be like if we hadn’t been on the medical route?” I ask Cora.
Cora gives a playful giggle. “Of course not. This is what we were meant to do. It’s what our parents wanted for us, and what the Syndicate designed us for. Why would I ever consider my life otherwise?”
This was why Cora and I would never truly be friends. She was so brainwashed by the infallible Syndicate, that she never questioned any aspect of our world. She was the perfect Concord citizen, which is exactly why I had to be careful what I said around her.
“You’re right. I was just being silly,” I mutter, Cora’s skeptical eyes watching me carefully. Before she could delve any further into interrogating me, a commotion in the square distracts her.
“I think this ceremony will be especially exciting. Look how long the line is already!” Cora squeals in delight, pointing to the fuss ahead of us.
I could never fathom why Cora got so excited about the ceremony when all I could feel were knots in my stomach. Each month Concord conducted the Ceremony of Sanctions, a large festival held in the center of town with entertainment and delicious food, almost like a carnival. You would think it were a happy occasion, given the way we were forced to rejoice, but it wasn’t. The Ceremony of Sanctions was the day that people convicted of wrongdoings would see their punishments carried out in front of the whole city. Most crimes were trivial and the accused would get a smack on the wrist before being permitted back into society. The more minute crimes, however, would result in banishment into the wastelands, or even execution.
Attendance to the ceremony was mandatory for all residents of Concord. This was considered a holiday for our community, a cause for celebration as our city cleansed itself of corrupt citizens who would surely lead to our downfall. It was the government’s way of saying ”don’t mess with us, or this will be your fate”. It was extreme, but effective, at scaring us into obedience. So every month I partake in the festivities because it’s what is expected of me, and hoping that this is enough to make it through another day.
Though I knew it was forbidden to think about the old days, I can’t help but wonder what life was like before Concord; before the arrogance of man annihilated most of the population and irrevocably damaged the earth. Global warming, pollution, warfare- all of the things people refused to take seriously have led to the decrepit world I live in today. The Dominate War changed everything and now, in the year 2320, we’re still trying to undo the mess that our ancestors left for us. The same actions that led to archaic traditions like the ceremony.
I silently curse when I see TIMs occupying the center of town. TIMs- or Technological Information Machines- were the surveillance androids that patrolled the streets of Concord, biometrically scanning our brains and reading our innermost thoughts. If someone so much as breathed the wrong way, the Syndicate would bring you in for questioning faster than you can remember what you did. There was a zero tolerance protocol for regulation defiance in Concord, and the TIMs made sure to enforce this.
Even though I had anticipated the TIMs would be here, it doesn’t lessen my anxiety whenever I spotted the dark gray machines whirring around the square. My heart quickens as we close our proximity to them, their beady cameras darting from citizen to citizen as they passed by. My hair sticks to my neck from sticky perspiration, and my hand gave an involuntary tremble. Before each Concord resident enters the square they must be scanned by a TIM to ensure everyone is accounted for. The process takes only a moment, but it feels like so much longer.
I watch the people ahead of me as they undergo the inspection process, my apprehension eating a hole in my stomach. Had I been designed correctly, I might be able to sweep through the scans with ease like innocent Cora does, but for me it wasn’t so simple. My brain seemed to work differently than those of my brainwashed peers, and this put me at a heightened risk when there was a TIM was nearby. I had never failed a scan, but every interaction I had with a TIM made me uneasy. What if this was the time they sensed my misgivings, and I ended up in the next ceremony? What would my fate entail should the Syndicate realize what I was truly thinking behind my well-rehearsed charade?
Act natural¸ I tell myself, but that was easier said than done.
When it’s my turn, I step up to the scanning podium, my heart hammering against my chest. I try to make my mind blank as a TIM approaches me, but all I can think of is the deadly laser on the machine’s surface that could kill me in a nanosecond. I close my eyes tightly as the scan begins, focusing on my rapid breathing. Rays emit from the machine’s small, metal surface and across my face, all the way through to my brain, as the android invades my innermost privacy. I stand paralyzed as the drone pauses, seeming to contemplate my fate.
The loud warning siren resonates throughout the town, and I just know that my worst fears were confirmed. My automatic instinct is to raise my arms over my face to shield myself from the oncoming assault, but the TIMs’ cries are too distant to belong to me. I open my lids a fraction of an inch to see an older man lying in a pool of his own blood a few yards away from me as an android hoovers over him.
“Perpetrator apprehended,” one of the TIMs says, and I feel my heart drop.
Several guards appear from the shadows and put holographic handcuffs on the bloodied man’s wrists, forcing him roughly to his feet. I see the man’s defeated face as he is dragged past me. All around, the crowd erupts into applause. What a way to start a ceremony night; the program hadn’t even officially begun and someone was already being detained. Everyone was delighted that our impeccable judicial system had gotten yet another criminal off of the streets. Everyone except me, that is. I was still frozen in place, frightfully aware that this could just as easily have been me that was carted away in chains.
Cora meets my fear filled eyes, and her forehead wrinkles curiously. I quickly recover my composure and force a smile, bringing my hands together in a quiet applause like those around me. Cora looks away, seemingly satisfied, but her face was still contemplating.
“Are you ready to go?” I ask, grabbing her elbow and pulling her further into the square.
“Oh, Kai,” Cora whines. “Can’t we please stay just a little while longer?” she asks, craning her neck to get a better glimpse of the imprisoned man over the conglomerate of people who had gathered to watch.
“We’re going to be late. Don’t you want a good seat for the ceremony?” I ask. I couldn’t care less about the ceremony, but I knew Cora lived for it. She reluctantly walks behind me, pouting the entire way.
Cora and I stroll around the square, taking in the festivities. You could find any form of amusement during the Ceremony of Sanctions, if you really wanted. Booths and enclosures were set up all around the perimeter with every type of food or entertainment you could think of, ranging from a concert of the newest hit band, to interactive video games that highlighted the latest virtual reality concepts. I was never in the mood for visiting the booths, though, and Cora was just happy to be here, so we would typically just find a place to sit until we were permitted to go home.
Although I was still feeling nauseous, I stand in line with Cora at one of the food vestibules. I watch as each person steps up to the counter, places their order through a mechanical cashier, and has their barcode scanned. It really was an ingenious invention, the barcodes. Instead of having to carry a wallet like the old days, each citizen is tattooed with a barcode upon their conception. This barcode is our life in Concord. We use this as the key to get into our homes, as our license for operating various modes of transportation, and for any form of payment. There’s no risk of muggings or identity theft with this new system, the Syndicate made sure of that.
I step up to the counter, order a kiwi snow cone and allow the automated clerk to scan my tattoo for payment. As my order appears through a transparent conduit, I grab my cone and make my way over to the sitting area with Cora, biding our time until the ceremony began.
As I silently eat my kiwi ice, I observe the crowd around me. Everyone’s faces were alight with excitement as they enjoyed the celebrations the way they were designed to. I wonder if my face reflects the same joy that theirs does, or if it is obvious that I would rather be anywhere but here.
It was times like this that I felt like I would almost relate better to the unsuits better than my own peers. It didn’t matter what the government classified me as, I didn’t feel like some superior human. I felt trapped in this body, one that was considered “suitable”, but with a mind that felt the opposite. Perhaps I was an unsuit at heart, though I would never admit it. As overwhelming as my life was, it was better than dying, I suppose.