The Clock switches to 8:00 and the announcement rings out across Haven.
“Haven is the way forward. Haven is the light. All citizens over the age of sixteen are to report to their working zones. All citizens under the age of sixteen are to report to their schools. Work and learning tasks commence in ten minutes. Haven is the way forward. Haven is the light.”
I’ve grown up with that announcement, and the other who knows how many announcements sounding at exactly the same times every single day. It seems strange, now… controlling. Haven’s teachers drummed the knowledge into us that the announcements and the Clock were for efficient lifestyle… but it sounds different now. I’ve always grown up abiding the rules. And now, as I’m standing by the front door with a backpack slung over one shoulder, the announcement sounds sinister. Haven’s mantra doesn’t sound comforting anymore. It sounds demanding.
“Are you ready, Cassie, sweetie?” Mum asks. She comes round the corner and picks up her own bag, whilst unlatching the door. I nod for the billionth time this morning. I don’t mean it for the billionth time this morning.
Mum kisses my cheek, in the same place that Kirsty did yesterday. A few minutes ago, I realised why Kirsty did that. She wasn’t sure when she’d see me again.
We step outside, just as the Sky Screen is starting to change to daytime. I’m still filled with awe, after nearly sixteen years of watching the Sky Screen change. The thousands of tiny bulbs shimmering over us brighten to a summery blue like a ripple in water. It’s beautiful.
“I hate it.” Mum growls as she begins to hurry me up the road.
“What do you hate? Why?” I ask. My heart is hammering in my chest and I want to take my mind off of it, because it feels like it’s going to burst straight out and land on the paving any minute.
“The Sky Screen. It’s confining. You should have had the chance to see…” She drops her voice to a whisper, as more people emerge onto the street, on their way to work already. “…See the real sky, growing up. That’s beauty. At least you’ll see it. Soon…”
We were taught about the real sky in school when we were young. “The weather is un-rel-i-able.” The First School teachers would teach us, dragging out the bigger words. “And so Haven’s Council made the Sky Screens. They’re nicer to look at and they make the weather do what we want, so it’s more eff-ic-i-ent.”
As we round the corner, turning away from the housing estates, I spin around on one heel to cast one final look at our house. It’s a beautiful house, plain, modern, sleek and pearly white… but all the houses on Haven are beautiful, because they’re all made the same. We’re all equal here. The only things that everyone does differently are jobs.
Mum grabs my arm hastily and drags me back. “Cassie, we can’t stop. We can’t wait. I’m sorry, we have to go, now.”
We walk up the road.
People smile at us in greeting as we half jog past them. Despite the strict curfews and schedules on Haven, everybody is always smiling. I’ve always seen it as a lovely thing- like the whole town is this tightly knit community. Now, though, just like the Clock- I’m seeing it in a different light. It all seems a bit eerie and creepy now. Men and women and children grin at me, or wave, or say little hellos as they make their way past. I can’t bring myself to smile back, though. I don’t feel like smiling again. ***
How can I smile? I’m about to run away from everything I’ve ever really known. Into the Outside. And why? I don’t even know the full story yet.
At least I’ll get to see Kirsty again, though. It’s weird not walking to school with her; usually at this time, we’re on our way through the large sliding doors, walking up the polished and gleaming white corridors, taking our seats in the lecture halls or the exam halls next to each other. It’s alien doing anything off schedule. All I’ve ever done has been dictated by Council’s rules.
A thought strikes me, and I’m not sure if I can see Kirsty again, now.
She killed people. This morning.
She chucked a small bomb at some of the Barrier’s guards.
How do I even feel about that?
As I match my strides to mum’s hasty ones, I massage my temples with shaking fingers as I remember the images the Council people showed me. I want to delete them from my memory, but I’m unable to dismiss the violence.
“Cassie, we’re here. Anderson’s truck- come on.” Mum calls. I look up from watching my feet and see a Council jeep. There’s a man in the front, with his head down, a Council-issued cap pulled down tightly over his eyes. I don’t recognise him, even though I know most of the faces in Haven. It’s not a massive place. But then again, he is covering himself up.
“I can’t thank you enough…” Mum begins. “And such short notice about this. It wasn’t planned, I’m so sorry…”
“Ahem?” The guy grunts. His voice is gruff and unfriendliness screams out. I’m scared to climb into the jeep.
“Oh, yes, um, sorry, I’m panicking. Peace is falling.” Mum whispers as she climbs into the jeep. I follow her and as soon as my foot’s through the door, the jeep takes off. I slam against the seat in front of me, and let out a yelp- partially because I’ve hurt my rib, but also because… there’s a secret password system for… rebels? Is this some kind of cult? I shoot mum a questioning look but she’s not looking at me straight. As I sit back, trying to stay in my seat despite the speed and the bumpiness, I watch mum. She’s breathing faster and shallower. Her face looks paler, and I can see small beads of sweat forming at her hairline. She wrings her soft, slender hands in her lap over and over nervously.
The man, Anderson, speaks again. “Did you see the footage? Of Kirsty?” His voice isn’t gruff anymore. In fact, it’s young and brighter. He can’t be more than five years older than me. Anderson must have been masking his voice. Secrecy.
“Yes. We both did.” Mum replied. Her voice was shaking just as much as my legs were. We bumped and sped over tiny hills and overgrown shrubbery for a minute or two. The wilds really are wild… It doesn’t look like it’s been touched in years, decades, maybe. The only tell-tale traces of life are the multiple tracks of flattened grass and bush, where Council jeeps have sped through. A shiver rushes up my spine. A couple of those tracks must be from the few times where Council guards have driven the exiled out here.
“It’s so…” He glances in the rear view mirror of the jeep and I catch his eyes for a split second as he searches us for a reaction. “It’s not the best plan we can do. But it is effective, it got her out… right?”
Mum sniffs a bit. “Yes.” I try to meet her eyes again but she keeps staring in other directions.
“It’ll get you guys out too, as well. Don’t worry. We’re nearly here, by the way. Reach behind you into the boot. There’s two rucksacks there. You pull the strap at the bottom and they’ll blow, like grenades, yeah?”
I freeze. The car stops and Anderson gets out, tugging his cap right down as he pulls open my door. But I’m paralysed. I can’t move.
“C’mon, you need to get going. Head straight for the underground tunnel and bolt. Chuck the pack. Boom. And then you’re out. Lucky girl.” He mutters, holding out a grubby, tough looking hand.
I don’t take it.
“No.” I whisper. No matter what the Hell is going on, there’s no way I’m going to kill people like Kirsty did. There’s no way in Haven I’ll do that.
Mum walks around to our side of the jeep and joins Anderson. She places the backpacks with the bombs in on the ground as slowly and carefully as she can, then she takes my arms and lifts me out of the car, as if I’m incapable, as if I’m a baby.
“I’m not doing this.” I look up and mum finally meets my gaze. She’s crying, crying as much as she was after… The Incident. Tears streak down her pale cheeks. “I’m not killing people. I’m not. Drive me home.”
“Sweetie, Haven isn’t… Haven never was our home. And Haven never will be our home. I’m sorry, I want to tell you everything now, but we don’t have time. We have to go.”
Anderson claps mum on the shoulder and slides back into the jeep. He pokes his head back out of the window.
“I’m going to radio the guys on the door you’re going to escape through, and say there’s a bushfire above ground. They’ll run up to the ground here. They’ll see you- drop the bombs and bolt, okay? Good luck.” He sighs and brings his head back in. “Maybe I’ll see you on the other side someday, too, yeah?”
The car starts and the stones underfoot crunch as the tyres begin to move. Mum calls a goodbye to Anderson and then grips my shoulders. Her nails dig into my skin too much, and I try to back out of her grasp, but she has me steady.
“Cassie, you have to do this.”
“Cassie!” She bites back the urge to scream. I can see anger flicker in her eyes like it never has before, and the sight makes me want to curl up and cry. What is going on? Why is this happening?
She turns away and picks up both rucksacks, after handing me her pack that’s full of her possessions. The tears are still flowing. I feel like crying, but the tears just won’t come. I’m too angry. I’m too clueless.
The barrier looms over us, a towering, grey steel wall. I’ve never seen it up close before: Only from miles and miles away, up high in trees. The air is always perfectly regulated in Haven, and so you can see for miles. There’s no pollution like there is Outside, blocking anything with smog.
It stretches for tens of metres into the air, but there’s a set of stairs leading downward just ahead of us- leading beneath the wall. This is how anybody, if ever, gets in and out of Haven. We studied it in school, though not in huge detail, in Haven history class. Guards patrol the corridor, and the only people who ever come in or out are Guards who scout small parts of the Outside for chances of threat or danger on a regular basis.
Except it’s not just Guards who go through there…. Because Kirsty got out.
“Come on.” Mum whispered, loudly. “You’re wasting time, standing there. We have to go.”
I snapped out of my daze, and trudged forward towards the stairs that led underground. Before we went down, I glanced back to have one last look at home. Or, at least, the wilds.
That was when I noticed the sniper.
The metal, circular end, was poking out from between the leaves of a nearby bush. I froze, fear screwing my feet to the floor.
Mum was starting to step down the stairs. I reached behind me and grabbed her arm as covertly as I could. She spun around on one heel, and faced in my direction, her face levelling with mine.
“What is it? We need to go, Cassie!”
“That. When we turn around, it’ll shoot. Oh, God, mum, what is going on?” I whispered. Tears crawled down my cheeks softly.
Mum swore violently under her breath. I’d never heard her say anything like that before.
“Cassie, we’re going to turn around on the count of three, and then we’re going to run down those stairs. Have you got that? When we get to the bottom, there’ll be guards. I’m going to throw the packs at them. Don’t stop for me, I’ll catch up. Just run like hell. Okay?”
“Mum, that’s a sniper, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…” My breaths began to hitch in my throat and I grasped at my chest, willing my lungs to work properly. I couldn’t breathe. Was this a panic attack? Was I hyperventilating?
Mum gripped my arm with a sweating palm, and swivelled me around, so my eyes left the butt of the sniper. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Mum practically pushed me down the stairs. And that was when whoever was hiding in the bush shot at us.
The sound rippled through the air, and hit my ears with such a ferocity that I was knocked backwards. My back fell against a metal stair and I gasped as pain jolted up my spine. My eyes closed for a second. I was in agony. But was I shot?
I ran my hands over my front and my legs, checking for blood. No. Nothing.
That was when the scream came.
“Mum!” I yelled. She was lying, sprawled at the stairs above me. I rushed up to her, even though my back was protesting, and grabbed her head with both hands, rolling her toward me.
“Mum? God, no, no, are you shot? Mum?”
She murmured something under her breath, but I couldn’t quite catch it. A weak, shaking hand pointed upward above us, and my eyes followed it.
The shooter was standing over me.
Somehow, I let go of mum and got to my feet. I sidestepped around her and faced the guard. He had a scarf wrapped around his head, so I couldn’t see his features properly.
I don’t know what I was doing. My hand curled into a quivering fist, and I flew at him. I caught him on the jaw, and he fell backward. He took strides backward, back into the wilds, as he pulled a Holoport from a back pocket. Was he calling for more guards?
I ran back to mum, my body shaking with a mixture of adrenaline and fear. That was when I spotted the wound. The sniper’s shot got her in her rib.
I let out a cry and knelt over her, forgetting about the guard. I pulled her cardigan away to get a closer look at the damage. There was blood. So much blood.
I whimpered as I stared. I didn’t know what to do. We were taught about guns in school: a way to scare us from trying to escape, I guess, but we were never taught how to treat anyone if they were shot, obviously. I’d had no medical training whatsoever. You only get that if you choose to be a nurse. And even then, it’s unlikely you’d ever treat a gunshot in your career. Haven is perfect. There is no crime. Nobody except for Council guards have weapons.
I bunched up part of her cardigan and pressed it to the wound, trying to get as much blood away as possible. Mum groaned and I cradled her head in my lap. My tears fell into her hair. How would we escape now? Mum can’t walk. Where can we go? There’s only Outside or the wilds. Neither are possible for both of us.
I pulled the cardigan away, tentatively. It was easier to see the damage, now. It looked deep.
Could it have punctured a lung?
I gasped and leaned forward, kissing mum on the forehead as she struggled for breath.
“Mum? Come on. Breathe in and out. Slowly, deeply, come on, it’s fine, you can breathe, it’s okay, you’re going to be-”
“I’m not going to be… okay.” Mum whispered. She lifted a frail hand up to my face and cupped my chin as she coughed.
“Go. They’re coming now. Go. There’s a…” Mum paused to suck in as much air as she could. “A red lever… left, of the door. Pull it down. As- as hard as you can. Then run… Keep… Keep going North…”
“Mum, stop talking, you’re hurting yourself,” I whispered, stroking her hair. I wasn’t going to run anywhere. Not without her.
“But five miles north, there’s a base… it’s an old gas station….” What was a gas station? “And that’s where…”
She nodded, forcing a smile upon her quivering lips.
“I can’t go. Not without you. I’m staying here.”
“They’ll kill you. Like- like they’ve killed me.”
“Mum! You’re not dead. You’re not going to die. Stop it.” I protested. I kept babbling, my voice becoming higher and higher until I hit breaking point and the tears started up again. No, no, stop. I couldn’t cry. It won’t do anything. There’s no use in crying…
“I love you, Cassie. Tell Kirsty that A is taking them down, that he’s inside for us. Have you got that?”
I nodded slowly. Mum beckoned me closer, so I leant down and let her kiss my cheek. Her hands stroked my hair like I’d been doing to her for the past minute.
“I love you. Okay?”
“No, mum. No. You… You haven’t explained anything. Why did he shoot you, and why are we escaping, and what the hell is going on, and why aren’t-”