I refuse to talk to Liza for days after finding out she had managed to get drafted into the war. No woman, let alone girl has ever joined combat. Maybe professions associating with it, such as Medical personnel and those who provide food and shelter etc., but no one have ever decided to throw themselves on the frontline. When I first saw her in the HDSS Park casually conversing whilst sporting combat gear, my mind went into a state of frenzy. I feel like I must have had an out of body experience, because most of the aftermath is a blur. Zoe told me how I had charged towards her in an irate manner, repeatedly asking, how could you do this? And it took at least three people to break me off her and subdue the chaos. I didn’t want to cry, because what does that do? But I didn’t know how else I could express how much I want to keep my friends. Yes, Vera is here. But the boys were planned to leave and I accepted that Hugo would go too. I just couldn’t comprehend how Liza, a female, would be leaving me for the exact same fate as Hugo. I don’t want to be pessimistic, I really don’t. My father is still alive after ten years and two drafts, but who is to say that kind of fortune happens to everybody? I know a lot of people who have been eaten up and swallowed down by this battle. I don’t want to know any more. I don’t.
I found it hard to look her in the eye for two days straight, even as I sat with her amongst our group of associates; Eric, Clementine, Hugo, Vera, Janna, Guy and Zoe. I would avoid any words she indirectly directed towards me, and the tension has been pretty high ever since. When I’m hurt, it’s hard for anyone around me not to feel it enough to breathe through awkward silences.
Hugo has tried to talk to me about it, as well as Vera, but I’m not hearing any of it. It all comes to me at once - the dawning realisation that this is the thing she wanted to tell me about. That this was why she was really so concerned about the odd male-to-female ratio. She twisted her words to dilute the truth behind them; it was never the ratio of the city she was worried about. It was the ratio of soldiers.
Liza has always been fit, just as most girls are here- you’re either active, or thin and malnourished. The only place I’ve ever seen people slightly bigger in terms of waistlines and kilograms is up in the H.D. I just never expected that her random bouts of disappearing or ambiguous allusions to the war were due to the fact that she was planning on fighting in it this whole time.
“She was attending meetings a lot,” Vera points out. “If she wasn’t around, she was at a ‘meeting’, remember? And then she disappeared, a couple of days before we left. It all makes sense now. Her transfer had been accepted. She had fought and fought until she was allowed, and she’s the first girl to do it. To want to do it.”
All trainees are currently at training, and everybody else that we hang out with is busy living their elite lives or passing time elsewhere. Vera and I sit in the same place where I first saw Liza. Despite seminary classes starting in September, a lot of people still mill about on campus, choosing the parks as a great place to hang about, jog or even study for the new academic year.
“I just don’t get it,” I respond. “I’ll never understand.”
“Maybe you should try by talking to her. Getting her side of the story. She never got the chance to tell you everything, so give her the chance to. The truth is, if she told you beforehand, she was afraid the word would spread. Because actually, right now, not many people really know she’s training. And I know she walks around in gear, but nobody in the H.D. cares. If word had gotten out in the Fourth or any other below, it would have created fury and you know it. It wasn’t worth it.”
“So she didn’t trust me.”
“They didn’t trust her. They told her to keep quiet about it. And she did, to an extent. It’s really that simple.”
“Yes. Death is oh so simple,” I mumble quietly, wishing I wasn’t so downbeat everything.
I sigh, slumping forward. My elbow rests on one knee as I cup my chin in my hand, and I don’t spend time doing anything else but brooding and staring deeply into inanimate objects for most of the time that I’m here.
I’ve come to learn that there are many beautiful hidden places in the H.D. There are small caves and hideouts, parks and woodland areas, perfect to sink into away from the hustle and bustle of the Square. Every time I feel like praying to Adaven without hearing Zoe’s loud and over-explicit phone calls to Guy. Recently, I was introduced to the Night Tunnel; the most solace-inducing place I had ever encountered.
I’ve been here for almost two weeks now, and despite how entertaining the H.D. appears to be, it’s still easy to lose interest in a lot of things. Or maybe that’s just me. People’s rations are automatically higher here, but with higher rations come more expensive costs – what a surprise. Taking a trip to the cinema costs twice as much as it would have back home, so I decide to save my leisure and maintenance on times when I feel it’s most necessary. Only elites wouldn’t have to worry about losing out on pastimes, meaning people like Guy can take multiple trips a week if they wanted to. I know they spend a lot of time in VIP clubs and elite gatherings whenever they’re not with any of us.
The Night Tunnel is an abandoned tram system turned into swimming baths once the Higher Authority decided that no empty space in our city should go to waste. Except the dozens of empty warehouses in the L.D. But hey, who cares about the L.D. anyway?
The Night Tunnel actually consists of many tunnels with a main body of water to which all the other tunnels eventually lead to. At night, the ceilings, walls and floor of the pool light up and burst into a shimmer of a million lights, the same way the windows do on a condense starlit night. If you step in the warm water and glide through, the feeling of weightlessness takes over instantly. I love staring into the stars, pretending they go on forever, as I would back in my old bedroom. For the past few days this has been my pastime, changing into the bathing suit that I was handed once I got to the tunnel entrances at its least busy times and submerging myself in the water. There are a few ponds dotted around the Fourth in the parks, but it is forbidden to step a foot in there. Just there for the attraction, I suppose.
Today is day four of Night Tunnel Swimming and day sixteen since I first saw Liza. I find it hard to let a lot of things go, and I have to admit that I can drag things out for much longer than needs be. I still haven’t talked to her yet. I prefer to think about things that don’t hurt, that don’t sting my chest, that don’t stop me from sleeping at night. I’ll have to talk to her soon enough; I’m too hostile for someone who hates the idea of losing people.
Luckily I’ve only spotted one or two other people enjoy the solace of the Tunnels, and in the main pool I close my eyes, gliding backwards listening to the echo of the water bouncing around the walls. I don’t pay attention to anything else, but the sensation of a hand grabbing my foot causes me to enter instant fight-or-flight mode, with my heart threatening to break out of my ribs. I thrash around in panic, close to screaming, finding it hard to see anything. The hand becomes two, pulling my legs down as if to either drown me or pull themselves up. I find myself underwater, holding my breath and adjusting to the view as the bubbles eventually disperse. The hands that have moved up towards my waist still grip tightly, bringing us both further down. I’m close to praying for my life, until I catch my focus on the perpetrator of what seemed like an attempted murder. The water clears and becomes still as we do, floating silently and softly. My head is throbbing from holding my breath and my heart is still trying to regain its dignity, but I get there in the end. Hugo finally lets me go.
I feel infuriated that he felt the need to sneak up on me in the most perilous way possible. What if I took that one breath out in the spur of the moment?
He swims to the surface and I follow quickly. Small white dots start flashing under my eyelids from holding my breath too long and once I finally get the chance to inhale again, I make the most of it.
“I hate you so much,” I hiss instantly, bobbing opposite him. He swims ahead of me before I can say anything else. “Aww, gee. I love you too.” He grins. “I wasn’t going to kill you. Please don’t press charges.”
“How did you get here anyway?”
“How you got here.”
“And how did you know I was here?”
“Did you actually think I was following you?” He jeers. “It was a coincidence. I needed some alone time. Then I found you here, and you ruined it.”
“So we both suffered the same fate, huh?”
“What is it that you need to escape from so badly?” He asks, but I can tell it’s a more serious question as opposed to a condescending jive.
“...Nothing. I just prefer it around here. How endless everything feels. That’s all.”
He looks at me for a second as if thinking about something before beckoning, “Come sit on the pool edge. I’m tired anyway.”
I tell him how I’ve been feeling homesick and tense since day one and he tells me how the feeling will go away soon enough. “I’ve been here for over two months. I think about my parents all the time. I’m sure my father’s not happy that I had to move up. He kept telling me how he felt I was unprepared. Over and over and over, he would say it. That didn’t just scare me to death, but it made me feel reluctant to be anywhere that wasn’t home. How can you live if you’re not prepared for anything?”
“That’s what your father said. It doesn’t mean it’s true.”
“I guess. But my point is that a lot of things can make you feel foreign here. Maybe because I know relatives, it made it easier for me to integrate. I still want to go home too, though. Probably never will.”
I’m shivering, wading my feet in the pool to keep my leg muscles moving. I’m still not sure if the shivering is from the cold or Hugo’s last sentence.
Instead of continuing that thread of conversation, I move on to something lighter and more trivial. “You know Aris Nestor’s family is throwing a party in two days?”
“I got an invite. A golden ticket. Most trainees are coming. After all, it’s a blessing for the war.”
“Isn’t that a nice thing to do? Throw a gathering for our city. I think that’s great.”
“Please. There are gatherings for nearly everything here. Doesn’t make much of a difference to me. It’s just reinforcing the elite status. John and Tionne Rilam want everyone to pay attention to them for a little while. Nothing new.”
“Who are they?” I ask.
“They’re the hosts of the party. Tionne is Aris’ mother. You already know John Rilam. Then there’s all of their kids. The family is pretty big in itself. I can help you get to know them at the party. It’s too complicated to even bother talking about right now.”
“You don’t want to have complicated conversations?” I joke, still remembering fragments of what Vera told me about the family a while back.
“I’m not a fan of anything that makes me think too much. Gives me a headache.” He shakes his head.
“What are you a fan of?” I ask, suddenly I don’t know a substantial amount about him. I’ve never delved into his passions or anything close to his heart.
“Not much.” he shrugs. “I don’t like getting attached to stuff.”
“Is it because you don’t like losing things? Or people?”
“Probably is.” Hugo says, getting up from the poolside. He’s started sentences with ‘probably’ more than once now, and it might just be his way of signalling a change in conversation. Either out of boredom or discomfort. I guess he didn’t like where I was going with our dialogue.
On our way back to the HDSS campus, I try bringing up the lessons. Before I can even go into more detail, he just shrugs it off. “I don’t care to know what goes on down there. I don’t understand it and I don’t want to.”
“Why not? It’s more interesting than you think.”
“Look; Osscarte isn’t exactly the most praised person around. He’s quick to criticise many people, but rarely ever himself. Why should I care about that?”
“Well who does he criticise?”
“He’s made jabs at every politician. He’s pretty much on his own plane of thinking. He’s crazy. I don’t like him. Not many people do.”
“Well... majority opinions aren’t always the best to follow.” I reply. He shakes his head at me, giving me a look of concern before laughing it off. “You were always a funny one, Eden Perronis.”