This is an official invitation from the Higher Authority issuing you a permanent position of further education in the Higher Division. The invitation has been granted by General Bidas, Commander of the Northern Empire and our Army. The date that you will be transferred to a campus in the H.D. is to be confirmed within the next six weeks, taking place in the month of July.
The position in the H.D. comes with the choice of any of the three careers you have trialled or are yet to trial. You will make the decision on your career once you have responded to this invitation, which has a two-week deadline.
We would be very grateful to have you accept the offer and begin your journey in expanding on your future, studying and working with our highly trained and experienced professors, lecturers and trainers.
Please note that accepting this offer cannot be revoked and you cannot return to seminaries in other Divisions unless the Higher Authority issues a transfer, exclusion or a disqualification.
Congratulations on your offer. We hope to hear from you soon.
I fold the paper back into its golden envelope, taking it back to my room to keep safe. It’s 8am, and the window is blue, dotted with soft clouds. The sun is still on the rise, in the corner of the frame. My whole room is lit up with day.
I leave my mother asleep, making my way to the C.D. to visit Vera before we continue Athletics training. Wednesdays allow a two-hour lie in, meaning I didn’t have to rise groggily and dazed as I normally do. I woke up, showered, walked to my front door to find the invitation, and now feeling ecstatic, I make my way out.
“I got in!!” Vera hollers, embracing me in the Central Hall. “Did you? I’m sure you did. There’s no way you didn’t. I mean, why wouldn’t you? It would make no sense-”
“I did, I did.” I respond. Another thing about Vera – she never stops talking once she’s triggered by something. Whether it be good or bad news, she will keep spewing words until she has to be reminded that she’s said enough.
“I can’t believe this! Well, I can. I always wished for this. Don’t you get it? We finally get to see what it’s like up there. I’ve heard it’s amazing. Do you think they’ll treat us differently? Do you think we’ll still have to wear these tags?”
“Stop with all the questions. My head hurts.” I smile as we talk to training. It’s quite a hypocritical statement for me to make; I am the queen of asking questions. I guess I’ve just met my match.
Vera sighs, striding ahead of me. “I’m just excited! That’s all.”
Vera was born and raised in the Lower Division before moving up to the Fourth two years ago. Her mother’s career as a seamstress and designer, as well as freelance artist on the side was doing well enough for them to afford better housing. Her father worked as an electrical technician before being drafted. Vera told me how he was killed in combat about ten years ago, which had almost sabotaged her mother’s career, as her emotional breakdown rendered her out of work for months. It was hard for her to keep on top of looking after Vera and her younger brother alone, but somehow she managed to bring herself back out of her abyss of pain. I’m guessing the pain was and is still there; she probably just learned to juggle it with keeping her family alive.
Vera took on blade fighting as a hobby when she was younger, but her real ambition has always been working in Medicine. One of her other career choices is Biological Sciences, and she told me how she plans on branching into the Medical Unit once she has finished training. I can understand how moving up to the H.D. would be such a huge deal for her – she’d be using the best technology and resources to study with. If she’s lucky, she might even be in a position to be a private doctor to famous figures. If she had continued education here, those privileges would be an unattainable dream.
For a fleeting moment while I take a break from our Athletics session, I begin thinking about how I wish I could have told Hugo the news. Even though the chances of me meeting him again have increased significantly, I still feel a nagging ache of missing him. He and Liza were always the duo I told interesting stories. He told me to call him whenever I can, but extra phone calls besides conversations with soldiers means extra money; something I don’t have.
“I can’t wait to tell Aris. Although I’m sure he already knows, somehow.” Vera chimes during the break. I chug on a bottle of icy cold water, wiping sweat from my forehead after having just completed a relay race. The mention of the name rings a bell in my mind. “Aris? Nestor, right?”
“The one and only.”
“What’s so special about him?”
“He’s a genius. That’s all I need to say for now.”
“Can you at least tell me what you all talk about? Stop being so vague! It isn’t any more alluring.” I lie, because it is.
Vera’s face turns still, and she looks at me with eyes dark, glistening. She leans in closer to whisper, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to blow Osscarte’s whistle. Whatever is mentioned in the Warehouse stays there. So please, stop begging me to tell you.”
By the end of the day in training, I’ve found out a few other students who were invited to study in the Higher Division. They include Clementine. My eyes rolled when I heard it; it was inevitable from the very start. All she would have to do is ask, and she’d get in. Rumour mentions that she opted for the Visual Arts category. She wants to be the bombshell of the empire; the kind that would make men kneel before her with gifts of diamonds and gold. I can imagine her leaving Eric in a heartbeat if anything more enticing up there ever caught her eye.
I spend the evening in Liza’s apartment, watching a film produced in the H.D. Well-known actress, Natasha Diamonde (pseudonym, I believe) is starring in her fourth big-budget motion picture. The red-haired beauty plays a hit woman, ordered to kill her own millionaire father by one of his business rivals. She eventually goes through with it after finding out she was adopted anyway. The plot twists when she comes to her own demise, walking into a death trap that had been created by her father when suspicions of his own murder had heightened. Once the end credits roll up, I notice Liza snoring, asleep on the couch. She was never much into thrillers anyway.
Liza had congratulated me on my invitation when I made the surprise knock on her door. I almost went home after Athletics, but I thought I’d kill some more time before I talked with my mother. I’m still not sure if she even knows about the offer yet. I can see the conversation turning into nostalgic sobbing, with her talking about how quickly I’ve grown and how she’ll miss me and how she’s so proud of me. Then I’ll call my father and the same words will be thrown out. I’ll smile and maybe I’ll cry if I feel I have it in me. The moment my mother knows will be the moment she never stops talking about it.
Liza’s mother walks into the apartment from work, greeting me with a smile. I give her an awkward ‘Hi’, letting her know that Liza is in a deep slumber.
“She’s been very tired lately. She’s trying to fit a lot into her day. She’s working to the best of her abilities.” She says, stripping her suit jacket and hanging it on the rack in the entrance. Liza’s mother is a tall woman, with a slender build that Liza must have adopted from her. Her skin too is a radiant shade of brown, a gradient darker. Her hair is cut into a short black fade that never looks a strand out of line. I first met her a few months back, when my mother encouraged me to spend extra-curricular time with friends, hanging out in other apartments that weren’t my own.
Liza is a single child like me, so she has to deal with the solitude or loneliness that home can become. The difference between us is that she’s more enthusiastic to meet and interact with other people. I’m not her only friend; even the small group that I huddle with in seminary canteens fill up a small fraction of her associates. I like to think that I’m the one she appreciates the most. I wouldn’t say it’s out of narcissism or anything like that. I just need to know that I could mean even a tiny bit of something to someone. Whether I’m the person who keeps them company at lunch, or calls them up in the evening for small talk. I bask in solitude, but I also flourish in human connections to an extent. The only type of feelings I could never hold for anyone is love, I suppose. I’ve never really felt it. I don’t think so, anyway.
You know, you’re shown all these romance movies and books, and they always talk about the heart racing and the pupils dilating and the lack of sleep and the leaping-into-arms. They always emphasise the tears and the joy and the terror of falling in love; how love is like a magnetic force that pulls people together, no matter how much they detest it, or some sort of soul mate ideology that you were born to love. I’ve tried to find that place within me, but I can’t imagine it. I used to think I was sick when I was younger. Girls would talk about who they loved, who they would want to marry, who they’d want to raise children with. I felt apathetic in all situations when I was ever questioned on who I grew an infatuation with, because the truth was, nobody has ever been that appealing to me. No matter how good-looking, how charismatic or fascinating. I can appreciate beauty and attraction, but I can’t pour my heart into anybody even still. I’ll never understand why. So I stick to my friends and my family and I hope that I’ll still have a complete life without anybody’s arms to fall into. That’s why it is important people like Vera, Hugo and Liza stick around for longer. I’d spend endless nights staring into my bedroom windows, daydreaming of abstract realities until I lost myself.
The last day of Athletics finally comes, and Vera and I celebrate by spending some of our ration at a coffee shop. Most food places outside home tend to be more expensive than grocery rationing because of the fact that they are optional. Not everybody needs them, so if there was a huge influx of customers, the food would run out much quicker.
After downing our warm beverages as quickly as we can, we wait for Liza in the Central Division so that Vera can lead us to the Warehouse in the L.D. The Division guards scan our tags and give us a three-hour curfew which allows us to spend time in any of the other Divisions besides the ones we live in and of course, the H.D. At one point, there was a strict prohibiting on moving through Divisions, but it became obvious that it would be harder to split up such a small city into smaller, restricted areas. Once you decided to move up or down, it would be harder to keep in touch with family and friends, and there was no point in such a harsh regulation.
The elevators to the Fourth and Second Divisions are located in the main hall, as they are classed as zones of residence, meaning they need to be more accessible to citizens. However, the Lower Division is also a zone of industrial and commercial manufacturing (a fancy way of saying work places) so its elevator is located on the outskirts of the C.D., the same place where the elevator to the H.D. is. It’s only that the H.D. lifts are in the West wing, whereas the LD lifts are in the East.
I’ve only ever visited the L.D. a handful of times; to attend a late family member’s cremation, and on a seminary trip to visit the working facilities and Detainment Units. The housing is kept separate, so I never got to see much of it; however, I caught some residents milling around in the places I visited and I can definitely say that they give off a much different ambience than other areas in the Northern Empire. They seem the most distant, and I can understand why. They get the least desired jobs. Most likely lesser education. They’re furthest away from the utopia at the top of the city. That’s one of the reason why any ‘lessons’ would be taught here has always seemed quite anomalous to me.
Vera leads the way as we enter the L.D., marching hurriedly to a certain direction while repeatedly proclaiming how late we are.
We find ourselves in an area cut off from the main facility which was quite tricky to actually access. There was a small branch of inner tunnels with dim or flickering lights that we eased our way through before finding ourselves bursting through the metal double doors of the Warehouse. It is a small white hall, set up with a cluster of students sitting around the centre. Their vocal debate ends mid-word once Vera makes our presence known. “Sorry I’m late.” She mutters quietly, appearing to shrink into herself. She instantly opens up her bag to extricate a small notepad and pen.
“Don’t be sorry.” A harsh, calloused voice booms from behind the group. The source of the voice is an old man, probably in his late sixties or early seventies. He sits comfortably ahead, poised with a head of silver receding hair, a clear white beard and a paralysing, endless stare. We never leave his penetrating, unblinking sight. “There is no need for regret. Please seat yourselves.”
Liza mills warily behind us, suspicious of what we may have brought ourselves into. “We were just engaged in a thrilling deliberation on whether wisdom is obtained at birth, or nurtured into us,” the old man continues. “Whatever conclusion we come to will be a turning point for our future discussions. It is crucial to understand if there is any real significance of even gathering, trying to accumulate our knowledge to reach our own goals of wisdom. Should we even bother trying to educate our young or not?” Silence ensues as he keeps his ever-staring grip on us. “Oh, and please do introduce us to your friends, Vera.”
By now, they all wait in silence in interest to hear more about the new potential members. I’ve taken a good scan of most of the people in the room. My eyes catch a young man, whom I assume to be Aris Nestor. He looks at least in his early to mid-twenties, sitting beside the old man who I’ve now concluded to be Osscarte. Aris’ arms are crossed and his brows furrowed in attention. He wears a pitch-black sweater with a high collar that ends around his neck. I am stunned by his facial features; they could put a carved marble statue to shame. He looks both stone cold and warm at the same time. And his hair is a wonderful dishevelled collection of thick bronze curls. You wouldn’t even have to guess he was an elite; it only takes one look to come to such a conclusion.
“Uhm, this is Eden. This is Liza. They’re both from the Fourth.” Vera says.
We slide into spare chairs at the back silently. The Osscarte figure cocks his head slightly. “Perronis? Eden Perronis?”
I clear my throat. “Yes.”
“Well done on your transfer offer to the Higher. Same goes to you, Vera. Maybe I should proceed to wish you both good luck, too. And not for the reasons you may be thinking.” He exudes a chesty chuckle. “You’ll need all the luck in the world to survive up there.”
Survive? Since when was living in the H.D. a matter of survival? I would have never thought so.
He shakes his head, oddly in pity for us. “May the gods save you.”
“Why? Is there something I’m missing here?” I ask in confusion.
“Nothing that should concern you as of this moment.” Osscarte swats away my question. “I’m sure your companion here has already made you aware of me and my colleague, Aris. I’m very glad that you made the conscious decision to attend one of our meetings. It will be a pleasure to grasp your scope of knowledge; see how much more you can take in.” He settles back in his chair, hands clasped together in his lap. I take note of the shabby grey suit he has fitted. He doesn’t seem to mind too much about his appearance. Aris on the other hand, seems invested in his own. But you can’t judge a book by its cover, can you?
“So tell me, Perronis. Where do you think wisdom comes from?” He asks in more of a demanding manner.
“Uhm... You learn it?”
“OK. You’re born with it. It’s innate. You either have it or you don’t?”
“Once again, incorrect answer.”
“I don’t understand, then. I don’t know where it comes from.” I answer quietly. It’s not often that I am lost for answers. But then again, I never get such absurd questions.
Osscarte shakes his head again. “You have taken a big leap, Perronis. Or, you could say that I did, in what I asked you. You shouldn’t really know the answer at this point. That’s because I don’t think you know the question.”
I narrow my eyes in bewilderment, with a hint of annoyance. “I’m sorry. I don’t get where you’re going with this.” Am I honestly on the same page as everyone else in this room? Judging by the looks of everybody else, no. Only Liza seems as perplexed as I am. Even Vera sits bored, as if this is definitely nothing new to her.
“Define wisdom. That would be a great start.” Osscarte orders.
“Knowledge.” I blurt.
“Knowledge of what, exactly?”
“Everything. Wisdom is... understanding the world. Knowing more than others.”
I hear a snigger in the group. Looking up, I see a boy trying to cover his amusement to my answer. He sits next to a girl nearly identical to him. I’m guessing they must be at least siblings, if not twins.
“So do you think you’re wise?” Osscarte asks. My skin is beginning to tingle uncomfortably with all the sudden pressure and interrogation.
“No. Of course not.”
“You have a sufficient amount of knowledge. You understand the world as much as you’ve been taught. You know more than others. That would make you wise, wouldn’t it?” he argues.
“I... I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
“You mentioned wisdom being a knowledge of everything. What is ‘everything’, in this context? The full capacity of the brain, or further? Does ‘everything’ paradoxically include whatever is out of our limit of knowledge?”
I have a headache. I also need to use the bathroom, and I’m hoping this debate has a significant conclusion because I don’t want to think I’ve wasted an hour or so of my life being berated and targeted for no real reason. “I define knowledge of ‘everything’ as the brain’s full capacity.” I sigh. “Knowing all you need to know.”
“How does one know that they know all they need to know? How do they know that they know everything?” Osscarte throws in another question. This one seems aimed at the class as opposed to just focusing on me. The sister of the identical duo speaks. “It’s impossible. You can’t know that you know everything. Even if say, you did know everything, it’s not like you’d suspect so. People who think they know everything think that way, because they don’t know what else it is that they don’t know, and refuse to acknowledge that. They think they’ve reached their own epitome.”
“It’s plain ignorance.” Someone else intervenes. A boy with dramatically red hair and a noticeable chin cleft. “Not wanting to know more. Being satisfied with where you are, and feeling like it’s enough.”
Some students scribble furiously into notebooks, recording anything significant to the discussion.
“Are you still with us, Perronis?” Osscarte asks.
“What about you, Liza?”
“I’m going to be honest... I don’t really get any of this.” She says, arms crossed, staring at the ceiling in a sign of giving up. “It just sounds like a bunch of pretentious crap.”
Osscarte appears amused by her response, chuckling. “I get that a lot. And you could say it’s true.”
“Plain ignorance.” The red-haired boy repeats. I look at his wrists, realising that he has no tag. In fact, a lot of the students aren’t wearing any, which alarms me. Wrist tags are impossible to take off – they are imprinted within the skin and a part of them is connected to the main artery of the forearm, meaning if they were ever released, you could lose a lot of blood. They work in any condition including water so there is no real need to take them off. “I’d rather come across as pretentious, than refuse to better myself.”
“Let’s not begin a trivial dispute.” Osscarte intervenes. “Let us instead revive our memory by going back to the first question. Where does wisdom come from?”
This is when Aris makes speaks for the first time.
“Heaven,” he smiles, reclining to rest the back of his head on his hands. “The gods give it to us. We choose to take it, however. It’s a choice, but it’s a hard task to take on. The gods give us wisdom, and we either breathe it in, swallow it down, or spit it right out. We either sit and we think. Or we carry on, and we live emptily. See, wisdom and happiness don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Wisdom can be torture. It can also be pleasure. But the bottom line is… wisdom is truth. And that’s all that matters. That is all that this city needs to flourish. Otherwise, we’re just playing guessing games, convinced that we’re winning, when we’re not.”
Just when I thought I had the conversation, I lose it again. What is he talking about now? “Wisdom is power, but then again, anything is power. Good. Evil. Love. Hate.” He frowns. “We’re born with the capacity to be wise. The determination of its utilisation depends solely on what you chose to pay attention to.” The words roll of his tongue like it is all just casual talk. I can see where Liza is coming from with the whole pretentiousness thing. But I cannot lie to myself; I can see slight truth in him. I just don’t understand why.
I wonder how I have never known of him properly until now. I wonder why his name is nothing but a shadowy thought – a forgotten memory, a word thrown around occasionally. I know a few members of his family – I see his stepfather on television sometimes. But Aris… he is just something of a mystery. He is on a whole other plane of thought.
“Anyway I ought to get going.” He bolts upwards abruptly, stretching his arms. He also shows to have no wrist tag. It clicks with me that it might be a H.D. thing – maybe Vera was in fact right about losing them somehow once you’re up there. “Toni is expecting me. She wants me to spend more time with her son. I’ll meet you next time. Goodbye Liza and Eden; it’s been a pleasure learning about you.” He laughs quietly. And just like that, he’s gone through the double doors.
“It’s commonplace for him to leave mid-class,” Vera whispers from behind. “Direct elites don’t stick around places that aren’t in the H.D. for long.”
The debate in the class continues for at least half an hour before Osscarte brings the session to a close. From the point after Aris’ departure, I talk much less and I just listen to others. The points become more valid and understandable over time. The discomfort I felt at the beginning is slowly slipping away. I can sort of see why Eric showed interest in this, and suspected that I might. Despite the years of endless seminary classes, this is the first time I’ve ever really felt I’ve been intellectually challenged. I’m not sure what it is – the conversations seem too simple, so obvious. But they’re somehow invoking a part of my mind I didn’t think needed invoking. They’re waking me up, in a sense.
“You’ll have to get used to the grilling. And by the way, the question Osscarte asked you is the question he asks every newbie. Don’t worry.” Vera tells me as we walk back to the elevators for the Fourth.
“I hated every moment of it,’ Liza says.
“It’s not for everyone. Actually, it’s not for a lot of people. Don’t feel obliged to stick around.”
It’s almost six o’ clock by the time we reach the centre of the Fourth Division and trail off in different directions to our own homes.
As I walk past the trees in the park, I think back to what Aris said. Wisdom is truth.
All I can think to myself is, what truth?