Lives lost of Time: chapter 1

As the door of the bus was opening and inviting him in, Ish felt like he was taking a step into the future.
Even though he had no clue what that future would hold for him. He turned his head and looked behind him, looking for Gus. The smallest of hesitations, this wasn’t part of the plan. He was ready, prepared, drilled, even though he had to keep repeating that to himself. Somehow reality had caught up with him; no matter how hard they had trained and prepared, from now on there was only one truth: he would be on his own.

At the gate of the farm was the whole family. Neatly aligned there were his parents, Gus and Ness, followed by his brothers and sisters. Each of them two years apart, alternating brother and sister. Like it was prescribed. Every two years the eldest of them would have to leave the farm at the age of sixteen and go to the city. Gus wasn’t his real father, Ness wasn’t his real mother. His brothers and sisters were no way alike with different skin and hair colors but they were family. The parent’s job was only to raise the children to full-grown, healthy and fit labor forces only to send them back from where they came.
 
Ish knew all of that.
All the other kids on the Transport didn’t.
Ness was waving him goodbye. Even after two years the sight of her scarred face still gave him the chills. The wounds had marked her face while the scar tissue had dried off to a blackening dark skin. There was nothing left to remind him of any human facial expression. Once she was truly beautiful, a natural beauty, that was gone now. It had also a profound effect on Gus. The wrinkles in his face became deeper, his hair more gray. Almost white. And his gaze was locked in a continuous stare, like he was worrying non-stop.

Worries which he had passed on to Ish. Gus had done the unsanctioned: he had told his son. Told his son how the world exactly was running, how the old world was like and how they got here.
Stories that led to worry.

Exactly two years had passed since his elder sister, Eve, got on her Transfer and left for the city. How time had flown. As if it were yesterday, he still remembered his depressed anxiety and her poorly concealed enthusiasm. And now the same was happening to him. As Gus and Ness were looking down-heartedly at him, he felt the anticipation sizzling through his body. Unlike his co-travelers however, he wasn’t excited for the new beginning, the new life in the city. Ish was excited to start his adventure in the city only to get back home as quickly as possible. He was the only one who knew that life in the city was hell and not the paradise that was promised. And still… he could feel the anticipation and curiosity raging through his veins. All those stories and details Gus had shared with him, made Ish long to finally see its grandeur.

Gus walked towards the Transport and pulled Ish to his chest. He rarely ever gave any hugs. Ish could feel his strong hands grabbing hold of him.
‘Take good care of yourself, son. Be selfish, don’t stick your neck out for anyone because no one will do so for you.’ Ish nodded. He would make Gus proud, for sure. And Ness. He leaned over to her and gave her a kiss on her scarred face.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon,’ he whispered. ‘And then I’ll cure you.’
Ness didn’t respond, she just smiled lightly as if she wanted to believe him. A tear running down her torn cheek showed just how hard that was.
And then Ish returned to the Transport. Leaving Ness he slightly caressed the small toddler that was just put in here. His replacement of two years old.
The engines of the hordes of busses started and the frontguards signaled the departure. Ish handed over his checklist and stepped inside the bus.
 
 
 
The refusal of any treatment for Ness had killed Gus’ spirits. He had left with her for the city, leaving his children and his farm behind but the doctors didn’t even bother to help her.
‘Her Shinu is too low,’ was his explanation to Ish.
‘What do you mean? Shinu?’’
It was at the end of the day that Eve had left for the city and they were sitting in the living room. It was the day Gus and Ness had come back from the city after six months of absence. Ish had always admired his father for his vast knowledge and experienced insight. Gus always had a solution to all the problems and even Ish benefited greatly from this. But this time Gus was clearly lost.
‘What do you mean, Gus?’
‘Follow me.’
Gus walked outside and crossed the farmyard. To the outer most secluded corner. Where there was nothing. Nothing but scrap metal and junk. Gus clearly knew his way and at the back of the barn he stopped and looked around to see if nobody was watching them. Then he moved some old barrels around and cut some branches of the tree growing next to the barn.
A small door appeared. Gus called for Ish and they entered the secret room. A small switch fired up some old and dim lights and a long but narrow room uncovered itself spanning the entire width of the barn. This was truly a unique sight. Every inch of the walls was plastered with photos, newspaper articles and old maps.
‘Look son, I’m going to tell you everything. About the city, about Management, the world we live in. The bigger picture. A truth I never told any of my other children.’
‘So why me then?’
‘Because I’ve had it. I’m tired. And because they’re fucking assholes.’
 
Ish abruptly awoke back into reality with the enthusiastic bumping in his back by the kids behind him. He started to scout the bus. Somehow he had expected to see some display of the superior technology Gus had boasted about. But all he saw was just a sturdy and aged bus. The green plastic chairs were worn off, hardened by the years of transport to the city and dozens if not hundreds of symbols were scratched in the plastic layer. Always the same symbol: the fist with the bracelet. The same bracelet Gus had and the same bracelet they would soon own: SHINU.
‘Sit down!’

One of the frontguards pushed him towards a chair in the front of the bus and he was seated between two boys looking in awe at the guard. The frontguards had a peculiar effect on the travelers of the bus. They considered them as guides to the promised land: they knew what life in the city meant. They breathed its air and carried its vibe. And these young ones dreamt of one day becoming a frontguard themselves. They didn’t know any better.

Ish on the other hand did not feel that way and wanted to keep walking to the back. He had no intention whatsoever to be seated between two schmucks fantasizing of a life of adventure in the city. For Ish did know better.
‘Sit down !!’ the frontguard repeated.
‘Aren’t there any other places?’.
Ish looked around and saw numerous options. Especially in the back they seemed less fucked up.
‘Your place is here.’
The guard roughly tapped the seat and his neighbors started to get annoyed with Ish pissing off the man in charge. They were clearly settling in in their future roles.
‘I don’t think so,’ Ish replied.
Immediately the frontguard grabbed Ish by the neck and threw him in his chair. With his elbows he hit his neighbors who responded in kind. He sucked up the pain and didn’t bother to look at them. The smug smile on the frontguard's face was enough. 
It took a while before the bus really took off and by the time they were on their way the frontguard had moved on. This was his moment. He slipped off the chair and snuck through the isle to end of the bus. Halfway through he found a chair next to a young one looking outside with the least of interest possible. Finally some peace of mind.
 
The revelations Gus was sharing caused an overload in Ish’s head. Everything Gus had had to hold back for all those years, finally came out and hit Ish all at once. The world he knew would never be the same anymore.

‘Natural disasters, climate change, industrial accidents,… the frequency they hit us with just kept increasing. By the year 2021 half of the world was without food or drinkable water. Epidemics, murders, riots and a war with bio and nuclear weapons followed. So many people have died since and now there is hardly one tenth of the population that remains. The life expectancy of the world had been collapsing for years and Shinu confirmed it.’
This was going way too fast for Ish.
 ‘Wait, first… What is Shinu?’

Gus showed him his wrist, the band lined with a bright light. Ish had always considered it a symbol of age and wisdom. The band was so familiar to him that he had never given it a second thought.
‘Shinu is the basis of this society. Shinu is the date you will die and there is no escape from that. It is represented by this wristband. When you were two, your life expectation was calculated and the rest of your life was planned for efficiency. No distractions such as wishes, hopes, dreams or ambitions. This is the core of Shinu. Hard and without any remorse. Imagine the power a government holds when they know how old their constituents will become. When it knows which people are worth educating and nourishing and which ones are replaceable. You have about 25 years ahead of you, Ish, more or less. Otherwise you wouldn’t have been raised on this farm. You’re heading to the city to work. No need to develop your creativity or your intellect. Your whole life is centered on productivity. That’s how it works. Management will suck you dry and give you nothing in return. However unfortunate, you’ll never become as old as I will.
 
Gus tapped his wristband and it lit up.
‘Damn technology. Luckily for me I don’t even know my Shinu. Wouldn’t want to. I’m happy we chose the farm that day. Every city is surrounded by thousands of farms that provide the city with food. Over there it’s nothing but industrial activity: producing appliances, medicine, energy, … The city has it all. Even the upper-class resides there. Those with the highest Shinu.’
Ish tried to get a hold of all this. It was just so much information all at once. But he got the gist; those with a long life were entitled to everything and he wouldn’t live long.
‘I kept silent for all those years. Followed the exact Management rules I despise. Just to feel secure. But no more, I’m going to help you, son. Train you, so you will be ready to go to the city and walk your own path. Not like those young ones who’re bound to crash in their dreams.’
Ish didn’t know what to think so he just nodded along.
‘And when does this training of yours start?’
‘It’s already begun.’ And Gus smiled for the first time since his return albeit a somewhat forced smile.
 
Gently the bus kicked into gear. For a last time Ish looked out for Gus and Ness. As the bus gained pace the steady stream of farms and gates passing by turned into a hypnotizing pattern. Gus had told him farms were constructed in a large number all at once but the immensity of it all impressed him greatly.

The cadence of travel made him weary; Ish closed his eyes and let sleep overpower him. He awoke not knowing how long he had slept with a hand squeezing his shoulder. The frontguard was standing next to him.
‘I don’t think this is your chair.’
Ish didn’t reply. No matter what his response would be, it would still be the wrong one. With a hard grip on his arm he was thrown out of the chair.
‘I’ll tell you where you can sit.’
The frontguard dragged Ish to the end of the bus. Unlike all the cheering and noise in the front, at the back it seemed quiet. Ish landed on the row at the back of the bus. The row was empty for no longer than 5 minutes when yet another one was thrown in the chair next to him.
‘And this is where you’ll sit !’
The frontguard addressed his new neighbor who responded with an uninterested nod. She had long brown hair and a strong, confident face. And that expression showed exactly how disgusted she was with the way she was being treated.
‘Don’t fight it, it is better here than at the front.’
‘I kind of liked it at the front,’ she responded firmly. ‘I had two chairs just for myself.’
‘There’s nothing but applicants over there.’
‘Applicants?’
‘Those who linger around a frontguard non-stop, in the hope of becoming one themselves someday.’
She got his pun.
‘Finally somebody talking some sense on this bus. I’m Jo.’
‘Ish.’
By that time the frontguard had turned around and marched straight for them.
‘You two. Stop talking!.’
Ish wanted to protest. Around them everybody was talking. This was getting ridiculous. But Jo silenced him with a gentle touch on his arm.
‘Don’t bother,’ she said.
Ish remembered Gus’ words. Blend in, he’d kept on repeating. And now Jo was right. Causing his own rebellion now didn’t make sense.
Not yet at least.
 
Ish was looking at the barn upside down. The ground under his head was within reach and the metal structured roof felt like a steep abyss. How he would love to turn the world upside down. Into a world where people with a low Shinu would be helped. And where Ness would be cured.
Once more he trained his abs and pulled up his upper body, hands behind his neck. His legs were locked in a wooden beam, in his daily workout corner. Gus was seated a bit further reading a book.
‘Ten more, Ish.’
Ish was tired and his silent protest was getting louder every minute. This training wasn’t what he had expected. According to Gus it all had to be centered around stamina, agility and core.
‘Strength alone won’t help you in the city. They outnumber you, they’re stronger and they have all the resources and tools. Your tactics should be based on creativity and character; character to follow their orders for months on end as not to raise any suspicion.’
Being in training didn’t mean Ish would be exempt from any other tasks however. On the contrary, all his chores still continued and Gus monitored him extra hard as he wouldn’t miss any target because of his training. The worst of both worlds.

As he continued his workout Ish was focused on the goal of his mission: get his family out of the hold of Management. He felt pretty prepared for going to the city. How hard could it be over there? So many had gone before him so why would it be so hard on him? So as soon as he would arrive, he’d search for a way for Yenn, his sister who was set to follow him to the city in two years, and all his other siblings to have future outside the city.
Suddenly a lingering thought returned. When would he die? What was his exact Shinu?
He tried to focus and block out the question. Just two more up and down and it would be finished. After a final rush, he slipped down the beam.
‘Well done, son. But we’re not finished just yet.’
Ish couldn’t do this anymore.
‘I’m done for today. I need to go to sleep.’
Gus walked to the outer corner of the barn to a barrel filled with balls.
‘You need to climb up to the attic.’
Ish started waving his hands in protest.
‘No more, I’m completely exhausted.’
Gus picked up one of the heavier balls and threw it immediately at Ish’s head. It wasn’t the hardest of pitches but it landed straight in his face.
‘Fuck ! Do you really need to do that?!’
‘Is that what you’re going to say when you’re working in the city? That you’re tired? That you want to go to bed?’
‘So what? Don’t they sleep over there?’
Gus had to smile; a smug smile however. Filled with contempt.
‘Of course they sleep over there. They sleep on command. At the moments Management allows it. They’ll let you work so hard and then they’ll let you sleep. So you’ll doze off, with no energy left to fight the system. However, that is the exact moment you’d need to use: the moment they don’t expect you to. When you’re completely exhausted.’

A next ball hit Ish even harder in the face and it really pissed him off. Gus started to climb to the attic launching more salvos at Ish from his higher vantage point.
‘Come on !’ Gus shouted. ‘On the attic, over the trusses, through the roof.’
Ish jumped on one of the water barrels and pulled himself up while Gus was launching ball after ball.
‘Faster ! Scan around, look for grip and go for it. Think faster.’
A final giant leap landed Ish at the only dormer window that wasn’t boarded shut. The view he discovered as he climbed through it made him speechless. As far as he could see there was a continuous pattern of tens or hundreds of farms around him. All identical. Some had different crops, but the layout remained the same. And between two farms the big lane with all the iron gates. His eyes sought for the ending but couldn’t find.
‘Where?’
‘Over there.’
Gus gently took him by the shoulder and turned him in the right direction.
‘There, that reflection is the dome of the city.’
Ish was looking to the beauty in the distance. How gracefully did the city look from here. Not at all as repulsing as Gus had described it. How could such a thing of beauty hold so much horror?
It had been more than six years since Eve left for the city. Sometimes Ish felt guilty for not thinking so much about her. But Eve was smart, she’d be a valuable asset for Management. And in eighteen months he’d see her again. For sure.
Gus started to descend and looked Ish in the eye. With no words, he just nodded. His face was filled with pride and even relief. A sense of determination Ish hadn’t seen in a very long time.
‘Time to go to bed, son. You’ll need all your concentration tomorrow.’
 
It was only the next day that Ish fully understood what Gus meant when he put a book in front of him.
‘So now I need to learn how to read.’
‘Sure, why not?’
Ish knew a few words from operating the machines, but that was where it ended. It had never bothered him much that he couldn’t read and it didn’t interest him at all.
‘Why do I have to learn it?’
‘Because I think you will need it, because in the city nobody thinks you can read. Trust me on this, Ish. This will give you more of an advantage than any training or problem solving exercise. Management is proud of their superiority that they’ll never expect anyone to know anything except what they teach you.’
No matter how often Gus was talking trash about Management, between the lines Ish could still sense a hint of acknowledgement of how efficiently it was functioning.
‘It’s ingenious what they did  in the city. All the old existing buildings are still there but they had them reinforced so they could support the weight of the immense glass dome encapsulating the city. The skyscrapers are the gateway to the top as they run across all the different layers of the city which can only be accessed through the elevators in those buildings. So they’re the only way to shift layers. If you have permission. Otherwise the elevator won’t move an inch.’
‘And who gives you permission?’
‘Shinu.’
Again Shinu. It controlled all of Management.
After six months reading became natural to Ish so he started to improve his new found skill with all the books Gus had stacked up illegally. They told of a world Ish had never known. A world without Management, without frontguards or Transport, a world with freedom. Maybe, just maybe he could make that world come back to life.
 
Learning to read wasn’t the only thing Gus taught Ish. He picked apart all the tractors the farm had. Not only the engines but also all the controls and electronics and circuit boards were dissected and examined. Ish got lessons in engineering and basic programming. He learned to rewire existing technology for other uses and learned how to weaponize them. Gus taught Ish to think outside of the box and how he could reprogram technology. If it was designed by a human, it could be redesigned by a human as well.
Ish grew confident as he was learning the power of technology, the ingenuity it held and the  circuits not performing according to the schematic.
Gus didn’t just teach him the electronics. He also taught him little tricks like hiding objects on his body or sewing them in his clothes; how to blend in with the environment and hide himself from a distance or how  to defend himself at close range.
‘Imagine that’s a frontguard,’ Gus pointed to a figure constructed of old-worn beams. ‘You can either make sure that he doesn’t see you at all or if he sees you, you’ll need to get up close to take him out. Never assume that he might have missed you.’
He turned the wooden guard to face Ish.
‘So you’ll need to walk up to him, confront him face forward. If he sees you coming, he’ll feel in control and be less conspicuous of your motives. Remember Ish, that’s the overall flow in Management: the unfaultable vanity of control. This also means you can catch them unaware.’
‘Do they carry any weapons?’
‘Some of them do.’
That didn’t sound very comforting.
‘The best tactic is to come really close up to them.’ Gus continued. ‘And if they don’t suspect anything they won’t have any time to prepare. However, that time window differs on the weapon they’re carrying.’
‘What do you mean?’
Gus saw the anxiety rising in Ish and decided to tone down his depiction of the guards.
‘Doesn’t matter, Ish. The most important is to get up close.’
Ish just got more confused; Gus was hiding something from him.
‘Talk to him, ask him a question, pave your way in until you’re almost in his face and then you strike.’
‘How? Just knock him in the head?’
‘No, that won’t do you any good. Even though their outfit may seem frail, it’s impenetrable. It’s designed to take a hit.’
Gus walked over to the side of the wooden guard.
‘There is a soft spot along their side, from the hip up. There you can strike.’
‘How come there is a soft spot?’
‘Their armor doesn’t cover their entire body. It’s made of separate pieces along the joints of the body to allow ample flexibility to move and run. The openings at the side are ideal to strike because with a targeted blow you can hit one of the vital organs. If you do that, you will take them down. And once they're down, you plant a second hit here.
Gust pointed at the wooden neck.
‘Just as with the body parts, their neck isn’t fully covered either. Strike a blow in the soft spot of their neck and it’s as good as over for them.
After that Gus continued to show him the full human anatomy hinting Ish at possible points to hit: the cavities of the knees, elbows and wrists. The armor was designed to take a blow but still allow for enough movement leaving all the joints vulnerable for any hit.
‘And when would I be needing any of this?’
‘Sooner than you think.’
 
The one thing Gus kept repeating became the mantra of the entire training: ‘Stay alert, son. Always. Management doesn’t flaw so there are no coincidences. Nothing happens without a reason. Keep that in mind. You will be on your own with nobody you can trust.’
Ish kept on repeating these words. Day in and day out until they became also his mantra. But on the same hand he knew his truth as well: Management wasn’t expecting him. They wouldn’t see him coming, they would underestimate his knowledge and most of all they wouldn’t expect him to be prepped and ready. And that would be his advantage.
 
Those moments in bed at night, with the glow of the workout still running through his body and unable to catch some sleep he knew his was closing his first chapter. He had lost the innocence of youth and two years of life. All the other young ones still had their naïve bliss, hoping for a better life in the city. Ish didn’t. And wasn’t at all that sure if it would be worth it.
 

Continue with SHINU, Lives lost of Time, chapter 2...

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