“I would like to firstly congratulate you all for getting this far. Though, I don’t know how you couldn’t, really. After all, seminaries are compulsory.” The Head of the Intermediate Seminary, Claudette Polanski, stands on a podium looking down on everyone in the hall, beaming with lips too wide and teeth too white. Hugo and I sit side-by-side in matching uniforms like everybody else in the hall, listening raptly to anything important she may have to say. Of course, she’ll feel the need to throw in a joke or two before she begins any serious talk. It’s easier to drop bad news in when it’s a gradual process.
“In a few weeks, you will be leaving to begin your Career Trials. Once you’ve picked your favourite career, you will have a couple of months to relax and get ready to move up to the Senior Seminaries, which specialise in your career of choice. Two years down the line, you will be working. Possibly owning your own homes. Possibly settled, with a life partner. But the finer details of the future are not necessary to hear right now. What you do need to hear is how the next couple of months will go; how to push through. What to be prepared for.” Her voice rumbles through surround-sound speakers perched high in the corners of the hall ceiling. It is giving me quite a headache, but once I go for my recharge soon, my body will restore its peace.
“I am happy to have lead you all through this for the past five years. And my, you all did pretty well! Slots are already filling for good career positions of the city. I cannot wait to watch you flourish into independent, responsible adult beings.”
I look at Hugo sitting next to me, with his eyes focused on the stage. His fingers fiddle nervously with each other, interweaving and untangling unsteadily on his lap. It’s hard to read his expression, but I’m sure his heart is sinking in his chest with each word the Head speaks. He’s never normally nervous, but that’s only when he feels he’s in complete control of everything.
I search through the crowd of silent students, targeting the expressions of males in particular. Hugo cannot have been the only one assigned. I need to know if there is fear in the eyes of everybody else, the way it’s etched into his own.
Hugo’s well-built, lean physique is adequate for war; he has spent most of his spare time practising Athletics in the seminary gymnasiums, after his father became his personal trainer when he came back from the war. He always dreamed of becoming a well-known athlete partaking in annual games in the Higher Division. He always dreamed of stacking golden trophies and wearing medals around his neck. I can tell that the news of the war drafting has been a punch in the gut, but I feel as if he’ll come around soon. If this is really his destiny, he’ll make sure to fulfil it as best he can.
The earliest age to join the war has always been eighteen, and even then, people are specifically picked, depending on their athletic skill, agility, drive and chance of survival. It was never random allocation, or a death sentence for an unwilling civilian. I don’t know how they think drafting as many men as they can could possibly give our city a chance of winning; it is more likely to bring the death toll much higher than it already is. From what we’ve heard all these years, the Southern Empire are much more relentless, merciless and stronger than we are. We’ve always been so close to surrendering, but the commander of our army, General Bidas, is set against us succumbing to the opposition’s power.
“Before I begin an update on the Empire Wars, I would like to not only again congratulate you for your academic success in the Intermediates, but specifically congratulate one person in particular.” The Head continues. She beckons to somebody from the wing of the stage to come, holding a glass trophy in his hand. Taking it from him carefully, she turns back to the audience, beaming her too-wide, too-bright smile.
“This young individual’s intellect has shone through. Their scores in every exam, in every field were either full marks or pretty close to. Nothing under ninety percent, that is for sure. They have shown integrity to this seminary, diligence and incredible leadership. There is most likely a special place for them, right up in the Higher Division.”
Hugo grins slowly, shaking his head as if he knew this would happen all along.
“Eden Perronis, please rise to collect your Award for Academic Excellence.”
The clapping that erupts around the hall intensifies my headache. I stand, feeling light and dazed. Moving through crossed legs and spontaneous cheers and hollers, the walk I take to the podium is eternal and embarrassing. The only thing that runs through my head is the idea of taking the recharge and resting. Maybe I’ll wake up, and this vivid dream will be over. I’m not as ecstatic as I really should be.
“You are one of the highest achievers we’ve had in the history of our State. There have been a few before you, but they may have not even reached the marks you have. You are a perfect representation of the perfect citizen. And you are a woman!” She cackles, handing the trophy over to me as I try my best to look honoured. Suddenly the apprehension that hundreds of my peers are fastening their gaze on me wakes me up. “Would you want to make a speech of any sort? Anybody you wish to thank for your achievements?” Claudette asks. I can tell it’s more of a demand; there’s no way of getting out of this one.
I hold my breath as I’m ushered to the microphone, replacing Claudette’s position. She stands too closely behind me, and I can almost feel her smile without seeing it. The crowd is too silent for my liking. The blood in my head, however, is like a gushing torrent of water, booming through my skull.
“I’m speechless, really. Uhm… I want to thank the Central Seminary for giving me this opportunity to excel.” My voice is all too harsh through the microphone, burning through the speakers like Claudette’s did. Perspiration builds up in the palm of my hands. “My teachers were amazing in the Intermediates. I have learnt valuable lessons, both academically and personally. My friends – they were great supporters. My mother. Father. All the reason why I’m standing here. And I... plan on continuing to serve the Northern Empire however I can, and make this city proud, whatever happens from this point on. So, thank you.” I smile, straining to leave the stage as abruptly as possible. And I would prefer if I didn’t have to slide back into the audience, into the faces that watched me like spectators at an Athletics tournament.
Thankfully, I am escorted backstage rather than back to my seat, and I watch the rest of the assembly from a more comfortable position. Claudette’s profile view is all I can see, however. Her white hair is tied up professionally, and her dress suit wraps around her figure tightly like her last clothes ration was years ago.
“There is also a student I would like to give an honourable mention. In fact, they weren’t too far behind Eden at all.” She grabs a framed certificate from beneath the white podium. “Eric Sage. Please rise!”
I can’t see much from this view, but an episode of raucous applause later, he appears on stage. He gazes in my direction, noticing me watching. Despite getting a lesser award, he holds it with pride. His smile familiarises itself in my mind, and I remember who he is; like Hugo, he excels in Athletics. Unlike Hugo, he also excels in academics. We would always be neck and neck in terms of Math or Science grades. He is definitely a born soldier, and I begin to wonder if he too was mandatorily assigned to the war. If so, he’s either good at cloaking up his fear, or he is genuinely happy to fight.
“I never thought a girl would beat me at such a prestigious award,” He jokes, prompting slight laughter from the audience. Despite ‘beating’ him, I cannot help but feel envy, from the way he sways the crowd. Intimidating silence filled my presence; he is already receiving audible reactions.
“In all honesty though, I’m happy for Eden. She deserves it. And if there’s anybody I’d like to thank, it’s my competition. See, if I were the best at everything, which I’m pretty close to being,” he grins, “There would be nothing for me to compete for. No pride, no honour. My journey would be over. But it isn’t just yet. I plan on making you all proud, just as Eden said. I’m going to show you that I am capable of so much more. This city has seen nothing of me yet.”
Eric leaves the stage and heads in the same direction I did. And he sits right next to me, looking in pride at his certificate. He throws a glance at my trophy before talking, whilst the sound of the audience applauding for him continues to fade. “That’s the city logo, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I reply, looking down at the design etched into the glass of my award. It’s the head of Adaven, wearing Her golden warrior helmet. Behind Her are five horizontal lines on top of each other, representing the number of Divisions in our city.
“Congrats again.” He says.
“Thank you. You too.” I look back onto the stage. I can tell that Claudette is soon to begin talk on the war. She starts seconds into the silence of the crowd.
“As you all should know, the war between the Northern and Southern Empires has been raging on for nearly three decades now. It’s been a gruelling process in which we have lost many people along the way. This war has created heroes. It has created more enemies. It has created something for this city to live for. Something to keep us going, something to encourage integrity and pride. It’s important that we keep fighting until the end; we won’t back down. We cannot let them win.” She tucks a stray white strand of hair behind her ear before continuing. “General Bidas has instructed the drafting of as many able-bodied men between the ages of sixteen and forty-five for the war. It is a mandatory position, and it will follow two months of intense training in the Higher Division. Anybody who received the letter will be leaving for training two weeks from today. That’s the same time that everybody else will begin their Career Trials.”
“Did you get a letter?” I quietly ask Eric.
He nods, looking out to the stage with an expression of concern. “Nobody saw this coming. Well, at least I didn’t. I thought I’d be trialling out teaching Science or Politics. I think this is all just a step too far. So many people are going to die. I can tell.” He leans forward, clutching onto his certificate. I wonder if he includes himself amongst the ‘people’ who will lose their lives.
“This war is set to end hopefully within the next two years. And by the end, there will be one reigning city. We need to ensure it is us. Thirty years ago, we held dominion over everything. We need to reclaim our power. And it is solely up to us. Everybody needs to contribute to our success.” The wide smile she wore has long gone, replaced with a more solemn, hardened look.
I have still never understood this urge for war. This urge to defeat the opposing city. Was there really any harm in living in a civilised society, where nothing was a competition? Where people didn’t die to defend something that shouldn’t be attacked or provoked? Luckily, my father is still alive, but he could be gone any moment. And what for? Pride? Greed? And all of this dominion talk just bemuses me. We were told the main reason is due to the limited resources between the cities, and it is only fair to fight; to see who deserves more food, water, rations and elite privileges. But whatever goes in this city, goes. We all abide by the rules, even if there seems to be no real reason to follow them. Or maybe that’s just how I see it.
“Not every male will be drafted into the war; we still need them around, of course. Any adult males with full-time jobs in certain professions will most likely stick to their position. And many boys are being chosen at random to stay here, so some of you will still have Career Trials to attend. Unfortunately, the majority of you have mandatory positions.” She shrugs apologetically. “But we can turn it into a fortunate event. We can.” She looks down at the paper which she reads bullet points aloud from, before clearing her throat; normally a sign that she is changing the subject.
“The weekend before you all depart to your chosen activities, whether it be trialling or training, at least you have something to look forward to; the End of Intermediate’s Ball. This year’s will be a captivating experience, so I encourage you to find some beautiful formal attire and bring a willing date! It will be a time of fun, pleasure, entertainment and feasting. Your Leisure & Maintenance rations will all automatically be increased for this occasion. I hope you enjoy the night. Get yourselves prepared!”
Normally the crowd would respond with a few cheers and hollers, but the heavy news of the war has basked everyone in an uncomfortable quietness, with just a few hushed conversations and the odd clap. Before it can get any more uncomfortable, Claudette decides to wrap up the assembly.
“This will be the last time I speak to you all in this hall. I want you to know that I am very proud of you, and I anticipate an amazing future for the majority of you.”
I take notice of her use of the word ‘majority’. Even she can’t be fully optimistic. “Thank you for being such amazing students. Here is to the class of 2150!”
I sit before Claudette in her office, minutes after the assembly has drawn to a close. She hands me my E.O.I exam results, with my career choices enclosed within. She thought it best to save me knowing my results until I was given with my award. “You did exceptionally well, as you may already know.”
I open up the envelope before scanning through the list of subjects and the scores alongside them. Out of one hundred, each score is over ninety. My lowest score however, is in Arts: I obtained ninety-one. Math and Science are both one-hundred. Language is ninety-seven, Athletics is ninety-nine. History is ninety-five.
I turn the paper around, to reveal my three career choices:
Profession in the Arts
Profession in Law
Profession in Athletics
“Arts? Why did I get Arts? Why not Math?” I frown, puzzled.
“I’m not sure. It’s what the system put you down for. I think you’d be part of visual arts; you know, media representative. Modelling, something of the sort. Maybe Acting? It does get you quite a lot of money that’s all I know, darling.” She cackles, widening her smile.
“I’m not that good at Arts, though. I can almost dance. I cannot sing. I-”
“You look good, child. Your features are unique. Those piercing green eyes, that long, dark hair, that warm, tan skin. Not everybody looks this captivating. And also, you may say you’re not that good at Arts, but the average score in this subject was sixty-five. You are an anomaly. You are capable of anything. Besides, it’s your choice. You don’t have to choose Arts if you don’t want to - but you will still have to partake in the trials. You can deal with that, I’m sure.”
I sigh, keeping my eyes on the floor below my feet. I’ve seen enough of myself to know how I look. Besides, beauty is a subjective idea. I cannot be that captivating. Claudette just knows how to use her words wisely. She was trained to sway people.
“From what I’ve been told, you’ll be starting with Athletics in a few weeks. Get yourself ready!”
Hugo waits outside the office for me with Liza Hawkin, another friend of mine. Liza and I became acquainted through being partnered in Language lessons during our time in the Intermediates. If anybody has captivating looks, it’s Liza. She has a much darker complexion of skin than some of the citizens in the Northern Empire. Her hair is always plaited in two long braids, which is a unique physical aesthetic in the NE. Most people tend not to modify their appearance unless it’s to keep straight, kempt and perfectly trimmed hair. Other than her appearance, her character is one of pure intensity. There is too much passion bundled up inside her; her voice alone could hold dominion over many. She doesn’t enjoy being walked over whatsoever – something we both have in common.
“What did you get?” She asks. “I got Law, Language and Medicine.”
“I got Law too. I got Athletics, but I also got Arts, which is odd. I’ve never liked Arts. Ever.”
Hugo laughs. “They want to use you as a poster-girl in the Higher Division; I can sense it. Your face will be plastered on every screen in every hall, on every TV. You’ll be the female equivalent of Demus Rilam, perfect poster-boy of his time.”
“I will not,” I nudge him as we walk to the Medical Unit to queue up for our weekly recharges.
Recharges are procedures which only last fifty seconds at the most. The nurse makes one injection in our forearms to take a blood sample, checking health levels. Then she’ll make another injection, which pumps minerals and nutrients into our systems in order to revitalise and refuel our bodies. It is all a part of keeping every citizen healthy and preventing any diseases. The last illness to hit the city was before the war began, and it was lethal, killing off the State commander at the time, General Clese, two years into the war. Since then, recharges have been compulsory, and a propaganda has spread warning people the implications of refusing them; illness, or even worse, death. People are too afraid to turn a recharge down.
The three of us wait in one of the queues of the Medical Unit. Many are formed, leading to the rooms in which recharges take place. The seminary splits us into different classes and we all go at different times, normally before lunch.
“I’ve got my sights set on Language.” Liza says, fiddling with her wrist tag. It glows blue - a sign that we are in a seminary.
“I’ll probably end up going for Law.” I reply. “It seems to be the most convenient. I would prefer Athletics for leisure, and I wouldn’t prefer Arts at all.”
“Either way, you’ll be living with the elites in the H.D.”
“It’s not guaranteed.”
“You heard everything Claudette said – you’re destined for a spot there. Stop being so pessimistic.”
Between our small disagreement, Hugo stands silent. He is most likely brooding over his sudden fate. I can’t help but feel sorry for him. I can’t help but feel afraid. The looming realisation that two weeks from now might be the last time I ever see him again, hits me hard. I decide to keep quiet from this point, and just wait until it’s my turn for a recharge.
Liza and I sit around a canteen table with a few of her friends, whom I’d prefer to call acquaintances. We only ever pass small talk between us whenever we can, and that’s where it ends. At least with Liza, there’s something more. Hugo sits across the canteen with his running team in Athletics. Ever since they were thrown together one training session, Hugo’s spent a lot of his lunches and spare time outside of seminaries with them.
We sit and eat our meals; a bowl full of diced fruits, wholemeal bread and butter and glasses of water. There are very few choices on the menu for food, especially in seminary canteens. We eat what we can, when we can. Only elites can afford to complain about their culinary variety.
“Do you think learning to teach Language would be hard?” Liza asks. “Your mother teaches it, so I thought you might know.”
“She teaches in the Juniors. I think the Language is much less advanced than Intermediate or Seniors.”
“I’m pretty sure learning to teach Language would include the entire curriculum.”
“Look, I’m not sure, OK?” I’m finishing off the last slice of apple in my bowl when I cut Liza off.
To my left, I hear laughter burst from one of the canteen tables. I see Eric and a few others fooling around, making jokes within their group. Despite his solemn attitude earlier on over the war drafting, he seems too perfectly happy to be apprehending death anymore.
I must have been staring far too intensely, and for too long, because he notices. Once he looks towards our table, so does his partner, Clementine Riva.
If Hell had a personality, it would be Clementine’s; alluring, sour, harsh. She never liked me all throughout the Intermediates, and I don’t see any reason why she would now. Her eyes are icy, and her glare condescending. She flings a smile that would suggest a hospitable attitude, but underneath it is bitter motives. Despite being the worst human being I have ever encountered in my life, I have to say, she looks exceptionally stunning. I doubt the devil wouldn’t put on any other facade, however. How else are people supposed to give in to her?
At first I think I’m hallucinating, when I see that she’s beckoning for me to come to their table. I turn at Liza for clarification.
“They’re calling you over.” She mutters in a monotonous tone. “Go and sit with the elites.”
“What could they want?”
“There’s only one way you can find out.”
I warily get up, and make my way past a few tables until I’m there. Feeling intimidated, I hover awkwardly around them for a few seconds.
“Sit!” Clementine signals to the seat at the end of the table, smiling. Once I do, she says, “I know you’ve probably heard this a million times, but congratulations on your award.”
“Now,” she continues, sipping a glass of her water. “I thought I’d try and get to know you. Seeming as you are seminary queen. I need some tips to acquire your level of perfection.” She smiles, and I know that her words drip with sarcasm.
“Cut it off,” Eric retorts quietly. “I just wanted to ask you something, anyway. That’s why I called you over.”
“Actually, it was my question.” Clementine keeps her eyes on me, with a wavering, patronising smile that never leaves her lips. “Seeming as you’re heading to the H.D., you’ll be training for a high-end career with elite teachers, and you might want to spend your spare time doing something other than playing pool with boring elite peers, or going to watch theatre productions starring elite actors. You might also want to expand even further on your knowledge.”
“That’s the whole reason why I’ll be studying.” I scoff.
Clementine giggles, looking over at Eric and others on the table. “You don’t know anything yet. You think you do, but you don’t. Trust me when I say this. And that’s why we wanted to ask you this,” she observes her nails before continuing. “Have you ever heard of someone by the name of William Osscarte?”