“Are you awake?” A young lady with white hair hovers over me. My eyesight is fuzzy and the world spins slowly as I try and regain consciousness. I feel like I have been asleep for a very long time.
Once my eyes are well adjusted, I note how I am sitting in what looks like a medical operating room, lying on a hospital bed in a light blue gown. “Do not be alarmed,” the nurse continues. “You have just undergone a quick procedure, removing your wrist tag. Every resident of the H.D. has a small chip inserted in their forearm which includes an L.E.D light implanted under the skin that works in the same way as the tag lights.” She smiles, and her voice sounds dreamy and distant.
She explains everything so quickly and clearly that I don’t even have time to murmur the predictable questions that I would have. Where am I? Who are you?
I look down at my wrist once I’ve propped myself up. It’s covered in thick bandaging. “You’ll be able to take that off within a couple of hours. You were also given a recharge during the procedure meaning that the incisions will heal incredibly quickly.”
“Thank you.” I choke with a rough throat.
Soon, a doctor walks into the room, whom I’m guessing must have been the one who actually performed the procedure. A tall man with black hair and icy blue eyes, probably in his mid-thirties.
He nods at me before turning to the nurse. “How is she doing?”
“Fine. Her recharge showed healthy body functions and regulations.”
“Perfect.” He nods again. “Eden, are you aware of the situation? You were brought here just over an hour ago. Do you remember anything prior to the moment you woke up?”
“...Actually... I don’t,” I realise. The last thing I remember was entering the H.D. lift, and even that is a vague memory.
“Ah, I see. That’s just the amnesia from the general anaesthesia.” He nods for the third time. He has quite a knack for nodding excessively, it seems. “You’ll regain memory soon.”
Once I’ve woken up enough to change back into my original clothing, I wait patiently for one of the two guards who escorted me from my home to lead me to the next phase of the transfer: physical modification. My luggage has already been sent to the housing units that I will be staying in within the Higher Division Senior Seminary (known as the HDSS), so I don’t have to worry about the whereabouts of my belongings.
The guard is silent as we walk down corridors, eventually entering a lobby with a reception desk and a large TV screen displaying information and general news. “Welcome to the Higher Division,” the receptionist smiles broadly. I take notice of the fancy architecture in what I now know to be called the Graduate Facilities, looking up at the large title hanging above the TV of the lobby. The room is built modern and abstract, with asymmetrical walls and unusually shaped chairs. Most things in the room are white, accentuated with gold decor and framing. I know that the colour scheme of the H.D. differs from any other division in the fact that most things are white and gold, with more of a splash of extravagant styling and colour. Where I come from, the monochromatic black-white-or-grey aesthetic sweeps over every building plan and attire.
The doctor told me that the Graduate Facilities are the very first stop of moving up. Every Graduate will have to undergo tag removals, optional physical modifications such as changing hair colour, adding piercings and tattoos etc., and eventually being sent on a tour of the Division later on their first day. The clock on the wall shows that I left home just over two hours ago. I realise that I need to get used to not calling it home anymore; as far as I know, home is here from now on.
“The Modification Centre is on the door to your right. You’re expected there.” The receptionist signals towards the glass double doors with an articulate gesture. Her nails are extended with glimmering gold acrylics. I have a feeling that getting something like that done would be way too much for the average leisure and maintenance ration; I’ve hardly ever seen anybody with such modifications done, expect for Clementine and a few other descendants. Vera was right - The Higher Division does play by its own rules.
“I’m not sure I want anything done.” I protest politely to the Graduates’ stylist, Cheyenne Ford. It seems she thought of her entire body as a canvas – there is not a patch of plain skin in sight. Tattoos cover her up from her neck down to her to her ankles. Before she offered me a tattoo design, she rambled in pure pride over her best pieces. On her chest is a detailed black-and-white piece of the city’s logo - the same one that I have on my Academic Excellence award. She told me how she decided to shave her hair into a buzz cut and dye it a deep purple, because purple was her late husband’s favourite colour. She didn’t really have to mention that he died in the war – it’s the most likely reason.
Cheyenne became a well-known stylist, starting off as a gifted artist creating works for the elites and putting on stunning exhibitions at least twice a year. Her tattoos and art became sought after by many H.D. citizens to the point where she was given the occupation of Head Stylist. Not only does she tattoo, but she also pierces, works as a hairdresser and can pick out the perfect clothing style for anybody. I learnt all of this just by reading the bio at the beginning of the book she lent me to look through different chapters of styles I might like. So far, none have really intrigued me.
“At least a haircut? Your hair is wonderful, darling, but I think you could do with a little trim.”
“What do you mean by ‘little’?” I raise an eyebrow.
She glides her hands across her collarbones, flicking them off her shoulder. “Around here?”
“Are you kidding me? That’s not a little trim. My hair ends mid-waist.” I exclaim. “Please, just leave me be. I’m fine like this.”
“Have you considered a change in hair colour at the least? You can choose either temporary or permanent dye. I just think, Eden, to really make a bang in this part of the city, you ought to live up to physical expectations. Nobody here looks like they would in the Fourth, Second or the Lower.” She talks ostentatiously, waving her arms around with each syllable she speaks.
“Maybe I can break that mould.” I mutter.
“We always have one or two defiant Graduates.” She giggles. “I think darkening your hair colour can really bring out those emerald eyes, and strengthen the tone of your skin. You’ll look much more intimidating and quite frankly, worth taking seriously.”
“Literally? A change in hair colour effects how people will treat me?”
“We’re all about aesthetics here, dear.” She responds. “I say you go... black. Jet-black. Cut your hair, just a smidge shorter. Sharpen the shape of those brows, dear! Darken your make-up too. It’s too simple at this stage; almost non-existent.”
“I don’t work at funerals. No need for the dark look.”
“I’m telling you, it will work.”
At this point, I’m tired of arguing. I reluctantly agree to being used as a canvas for one of Cheyenne Ford’s art pieces. I know life is about conformity but I didn’t know it was a necessity.
“Listen. Every Higher Graduate is being invited to an evening party at the Rilams’ residence in a few weeks. It’s a good-luck celebration for our side in the war. Many famous figures will be there, including the Nestor-Rilam family. If you want a good reputation, it’s crucial that you find an image that can turn heads, even by the slightest.”
I’m not here for a reputation, I want to say. I’m here to further my education and study for a decent paying job. But I might as well just go ahead with this. Get her off of my case.
“Fine,” I sigh. “I’ll do it.”
And within an hour, I turn to the mirror and let out a slight gasp. It’s due to the realisation that I don’t look half bad, but I play it off by putting on an indignant façade. “I knew you would do this! I knew you’d just chop it all off!”
“Calm down, Perronis. There are always oils, creams and serums you can buy in our salons that can increase hair growth speed tenfold. You just need to admit that this is a good look.” Cheyenne smiles. Staring at my pitch-black, straightened bob hanging just a little higher than my shoulders, it feels odd knowing I wouldn’t even be able to tie it up for a good few months. I’ve never had my hair this short in my life. In all honestly, it’s not a huge deal and I’ll be used to it within a couple of days – but I didn’t want the Higher Division to change me in any way possible. I didn’t want to be malleable. I wanted to stay strong for my mother, for my father, and for any of the challenges I may have to face. I know that becoming somebody different can start with superficial changes. Before I know it, being persuaded into a haircut could lead into coercion of much more serious things. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to change at all.
I bump into Vera in the dining hall where all the Graduates are having an introductory luncheon, advised by General Bidas to welcome us to this part of the city.
“I almost didn’t recognise you!” She squeals. “You look perfect.”
“Thank you,” I hug her lightly. “Did you get anything? I can’t see much of a difference.”
“I got a tiny tattoo under my rib. It’s of my father’s name.” She says. “It was made with gold ink. How ridiculous is that?” She nudges me.
There are five large tables in the hall, each enough to fit ten people. There are no allocated seats, so Vera and I sit at the closest we can find. Janna and Joseph find themselves seated on our table along with a few other Graduates who I do not find familiar. They must have come from the Second or the Lower.
When the food comes out, I’m taken away. There are platters of things I’ve never quite seen before, in colours I didn’t know food could come in. Different shapes and textures, different types of meat and fruits I’ve never seen. All I can really do is smile in awe. Most of the others’ reactions are the same. Audible gasps, laughter, confusion. Despite being introduced to some new foods at the E.O.I ball a while back, none of it compared to what I’ve seen for the first time today.
And the taste, oh, the taste. I could burst into tears from the pure ambrosia that we’ve been served. The tenderness, the sweetness, the bitterness, the crunchiness of each meal makes me hope I never have to deal with the food rations from below, ever again. But I do guess that it’s all part of their plan to lure us deeply into the ways of the H.D. Once I realise this, I finish my last bite abruptly and push my plate aside. By this point, I’ve already had too much. I never realised how much I ever needed more than I had.
Once most people have finished their meals, we are presented with a brief recorded speech that General Bidas put together.
Bidas is a charming leader, only in his mid-forties. He managed to sway the public with his hopeful rhetoric, as well as his dashingly good looks. Many times he has promised to bring us out of the war, but sometimes I am sceptical. There is not much I can do about that, however.
A screen is projected onto the wall ahead of us, similar to how the trees glimmer in the parks. After seconds of static, Bidas’ face lights up.
“Good afternoon Graduates. We also hope your day is going well so far. I would just like to welcome you all to the Higher Division and wish for you to settle comfortably.” The screen glitches at times as if the signal is poor. “Our city is in difficult times at the moment, and has been for a very long time. All I can really expect from you is that you carry the optimism, determination and diligence that you had with you at home, and hold on to it. You’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to excel; take it with both hands, and try your hardest in whatever field you have chosen to work in. Every Graduate is a very important tool for the success of our city, due to your intelligence and drive. You are all very much needed here, and I wish you luck on your stay.”
Within seconds of his last words, the TV projection disintegrates into the air as if it were never there in the first place. His slight reference to the war reminds me of Hugo and the other soldiers and how they’ll be gone soon, in less than two months. People keep on emphasising how times are ‘difficult’ but if that was the case, I’ll never get over the fact that their tactic was just to throw everybody in. You’d think they’d be more picky-and-choosy; more precise with their soldiers. Maybe they thought that the implementation of
enhanced armour and weapons could do the job on its own, but what’s the point if half of the people using them have only been declared fit to fight after just over eight weeks of training?
The tour begins briefly after the meal has ended. Just as we ate in groups of ten, we are all planned to tour the same way. Vera and I tag along the back of the group as we go around, talking and commenting quietly between ourselves. Once we are out of the Graduate’s Facilities, we are taken to a platform similar to the ones below, ready to board a train to the H.D. Square – equivalent to the Central.
I’ve come to learn that the H.D. is so huge, there is enough space for the Central to be built alongside housing units and not separated like the other Divisions. The three below have to share the Central Division - the Higher Division has one to itself. You can tell that there is much surface area to this part of the city; the ceilings are much higher, giving it a sublime feeling. For the first time ever, I actually feel quite small. It makes me wonder if the city is built like a turned-over pyramid, with the highest level having the most space. It’s hard to pinpoint how this city was built, but the more of it I travel around, the more I think I might have an idea.
The Square is busy, with surprisingly more people than I’ve ever seen at once in the C.D. People wearing extravagant, modern attire strut from place to place, either with children, friends, partners or alone. Another thing that alarms me is the larger population of males; there are close to none in the Fourth, but here it’s almost like only a handful were drafted from here - or they actually had the choice. The latter seems more likely from what I know about this place.
As we enter the Square, the first, most unnoticeable thing my eye catches is an immense statue of Adaven, towering over the entire Division, scaling many floors up.
“Created from only marble and gold, the Statue of Adaven was built around the same time that war was declared on us. We felt it would be a good blessing to have her physical presence watching over us, giving us good luck and wellbeing throughout our turmoil.” Our tour guide explains in a robotic voice. As we venture closer, my heart beats faster at the sheer enormous size of her. I have to crane my neck directly above to gaze into her immaculately carved eyes. Her shield, sword and helmet are accentuated the strong, shining gold. “Many architects helped to build this masterpiece and with their help, it was complete in just under two years. Since its completion, it’s been a place of worship and praise; a place where people can come and sit in solace, relax and converse with loved ones. Adaven has been our shield. Our main protector. Though we do have many other gods, She has been the one many people have taken to heart. Building this statue is only a fraction of how much tribute we could pay to honour Her.”
Within two hours, we have been shown around a majority of shopping centres and facilities and through the housing units of regular citizens. Everything about this Division is so beautiful, so bold, and so expensive. It’s an insult to everything below. We may be fighting for privilege and power against the Southern Empire, but it appears most of the H.D. has ours. Our last stop is our permanent places of residence - the seminary dorms. They are split into male and female dorms which are located on the far sides of the HDSS, making it longer and harder to travel to either dorm if you don’t belong there. Our groups are split into male and female once we enter the HDSS so that tour guides can locate us to our final destinations.
We stand one of the few HDSS parks, ready to be taken to our apartments and meet our new roommates. We’re given the opportunity to ask any further questions if there is anything we were curious or confused about. Most queries have already been answered in the second letter we were given or during our transfer. There is one question, however, that I’m burning to ask. I raise my hand slowly.
“Yes, uhm... Eden?” The guide takes a quick glance at my name tag.
“Where do the trainee soldiers stay? And where do they train?” My question is quick and a little too enthusiastic.
“Good question,” the guide shakes her finger in acknowledgement. “Any trainee soldier who is in the same age group as a Senior Seminary student - so around your age – stays in the same place where you will stay. They have their own apartments in the dorms here, in the HDSS. They spend training in a cut-off part of the H.D. and they are the only citizens that have access to it. You will see the trainees around the Division during their breaks throughout the day, until they eventually leave in September. If you do know anybody joining the war, this will be a good few weeks to connect before you say your final goodbyes.”
Does the guide mean ‘final’ goodbyes, acknowledging that we’ve already said our first when they left for training, or because they’ll never really come back?
I stand silently at the hall of my new dorm room after pressing in the given code to let myself in. I was told my roommate should be here already, but the silence of the apartment makes me think otherwise.
“Hello?” I call. The apartment must be much bigger than I imagined because my voice leaves a slight echo bouncing on the walls. I saunter further in, standing at the edge of the living room. A ridiculously large flat television takes up the majority of the wall it projects images from. It has been left on making it evident that someone must be inside. “Hello? Is anybody in here?” I holler louder.
“Chill out.” I hear a girl groan. By the tone of her voice, my stomach turns. My biggest nightmare was having a roommate that I may not get along with. Especially if they were just another bratty elite.
The girl appears at the hallway going to the bedroom on the other side of the living room. She stands tall, with hair a dark blue hue in which half of her head has been shaved into an asymmetric trim. The other half of her hair ends just below the ear. I gaze in awe at her facial piercings; the ring in her right eyebrow and the silver one in her septum. She wears all black, cloaking her figure in obscurity. “I was just finishing my piece,” She continues. “Gee, I didn’t know I’d be placed with a Graduate. I hope they’re not as goddamn annoying as they’re made out to be.”
“I hope elites aren’t as goddamn self-righteous and entitled that they’re made out to be.” I snap back in defence.
“Wow,” She laughs. “You’ve got a mouth on you! Isn’t that lovely?”
I think about the amount of mortal enemies I can count. Clementine Riva: one. The Southern Empire as a collective body: Two. Blue-haired metal-faced girl: Three.
“Look, I didn’t want to start conflict with anybody. I’ve only just settled in. If we’re going to argue, can we save it for when I’ve gotten more comfortable with the place?”
Instead of nodding her head or agreeing, she tilts it to the side as if analysing me. “Eden?”
“...Yes... How do you know my name?”
“Oh, well would you look at that. I got Eden Perronis!”
“Seriously, how do you-”
“My partner told me all about you! Guy Rothstein, you know him?” She beams at the mention of his name.
“Rings a bell.”
“We’re getting married when I’m eighteen. How do you think Zoe Rothstein sounds?”
“It doesn’t matter right now.” She shakes my answer off. “So, Eden. Hello. Welcome home.”
By this point, she’s standing closer to me after having edged through the living towards where I am. She stretches out her hand for me to shake. “I’m Zoe. Zoe Black. The clothing makes sense now, doesn’t it?” Her change in mood reminds me of Vera’s, to an extent.
“I was just working on a poem in our bedroom. Your luggage is in there, by the way. To the left of the hallway.”
After a good hour of conversation, I find out that Zoe is a direct elite whose parents are both renowned doctors in the H.D., and she has chosen to study microbiology to follow in their medical footsteps. “The world of small wonders is as interesting as the big world.” She says, staring softly somewhere into space.
Out of nowhere, she gasps, jolting up from the couch were we both sit. “What’s the time?”
“Almost six,” I reply glancing at the wall clock.
“I’ve got to meet Guy at the Park.” She stands up and rushes to leave. At the spur of the moment, I decide to follow.
We approach a crowd of people, some of whom are wearing combat gear, suggesting that they must be trainee soldiers. As they stand talking, I start to distinguish a few faces. Clementine, who I had ignored most of the journey here, standing next to Eric. I take note of his shorter hair trim. Janna Ramos stands within the bunch without her brother. My heart leaps once I spot Hugo a couple of seconds before he notices me and tries to figure out who I am. I beam, trying hard not to race towards him and never let go.
But then my heart stops and falls, once I notice someone else in combat gear. It’s a girl. With two dark plaits and radiant skin.