Lives lost of Time: chapter 2

Sometimes dreams do come true.
The city arising afar was exactly as Ish expected it to be. Not so much the fractured shape of the dome or the sunlight reflecting on the huge glass panels; but foremost the sheer grandeur it radiated. This was unlike anything he had ever seen; scaled out of any known proportion. He planted his face as close to the window as possible and just like his peers on the bus he studied every inch and every detail. Suddenly the farm and his life growing up there seemed so futile. This one place dominated the entire region; its huge dome of metal and glass rising miles above the landscape. For sure, this was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen; a natural grace and still so profound and authoritative.
Ish looked around on the bus. All the other young ones were completely hooked on the spectacle as well. After three days of boasting about their future lives at last silence returned. The outlook of the city had them in full grip: this was why they got on the bus. This was what every sixteen year old was looking forward to. And the expectations were more than met.

Only when Ish looked at Jo did he see mixed feelings. Obviously she was fighting her regard. She couldn’t but feel some kind of admiration but she forced herself not to show it. Every night when the busses had stopped they sat together and talked until deep in the night. Comparing the lives on the farm, their siblings and all they had in common. Her presence had a soothing effect on Ish. They had so much in common and a shared sentiment towards the city. Against his advice she shared her opinion on their future and Management’s role. Even though Ish wanted to be fully open and honest with her, he couldn’t shake off Gus’ mantra of secrecy, so he just focused on her storyline. She talked candidly about how she missed her older sisters and how every two years she handed letters to the guards to pass on to them. Jo didn’t want to go to the city, she wanted to stay on the farm. Ish was moved by her naivety and her rebellious attitude, even though it was more of a pose. Somehow she reminded him of Eve.
Gus had warned Ish of the city. He taught him all the dangers and the deceptive character of its citizens but never did he mention the attraction its prowess held. A magnetic strength that invited you to join and be a part of the system. Maybe Gus was wrong? Or at least he was exaggerating.
A hand on his shoulder snapped him back into reality. One of the former applicants was leaning in over his chair.
‘Now this totally differs from that small worn out farm, am I wrong? Shiny metal beams, clear glass. And as tall as the sky. You wouldn’t catch this much sun if you were to pull all day on the farm.’
The enthusiasm was getting too strong and the boasting clearly was getting started all over.
‘I’ll probably take one of the apartments on the higher levels. Anyone any objections?’
On the chair neighboring him Tor, a boy way less buffed, was disagreeing.
‘Too many stairs for me. I’ll take one on the ground level.’
‘At the bottom? And be trapped in all the garbage that is thrown down? I don’t think so’
‘Hmmmm… They must have figured something out for that, no?’
Ish was laughing but in his mind he knew no one would ever make it to the top; not even he. All of them were destined by Shinu to live in the dark layers, the lower levels. His smile froze, for him the city had already lost all its appeal.
 
‘Ish?’
Jo grabbed his arm and looked him straight in the eyes with a questioning hope in her big blue eyes.
‘Promise me you won’t leave me alone?’
Surprised by her question, he quickly nodded and pulled her closer to him. She was clearly afraid like she had an inkling what that glass dome was hiding from them.
A loud siren chanted through the bus and Jo immediately pushed herself away from him. A guard mounted in the center aisle.
‘Everyone remains seated until we’ve reached the city.’
The bus slowed down and joined a steady stream of other busses. Ish counted hundreds of busses surrounding him. The city wasn’t expecting just them and tension started to rise in the bus. Something was off, Ish felt a worrisome fear creeping up at him over the hours they were queuing to approach the dome.
Just in front of the giant concrete wall encircling the city, the bus entered a tunnel. Without any interior lighting it became both dark and quiet in the bus. With just the headlights of the bus casting some light on the concrete supports they made their way deeper into the city. Smog started to seep in the bus and soon most of the young ones were coughing with tears running from their cheeks. Ish tried to filter the air with his hand but it wouldn’t help. Gone was the natural grace of the city.
 
Light began to appear as the bus started to climb. They left the tunnel and entered a giant terminal. Encapsulated by towering concrete walls a centered courtyard was lined up by guards. Enormous spotlights lit up the hall which was equipped with audio speakers, tracking lights and cameras. But the real action was on the ground. With precision every driver positioned his bus at a designated parking area. Their bus was in area 122 and stopped exactly at its marker waiting for all of the other busses to park.
A loud buzzer sounded through the terminal and the front door of the bus opened next to a hallway of fencing and wiring.
‘Everybody! Out!’
The guard didn’t give any other explanation. Somewhat confused everybody got up slowly and reached for their bags stowed above them.
‘Leave all your belongings behind. Your stuff will be delivered to you afterwards.’
He forced himself through the aisle pushing everybody forward.
‘Move. Forward. No time to lose!’
Ish saw Tor still trying to reach his bag above him when the guard closed up on him.
‘I said leave it.’
‘My glasses,’ Tor protested. ‘I need my glasses.’
The blow came quick as lighting. Ish had never seen the rubber baton but now it was there; the entire drive it had been hidden away in the guards’ sleeve. He hit Tor at the bottom of the spine and immediately the boy fell down and dropped his bag.
‘Everything will be delivered. And you better be careful or soon you won’t be able to see anything.’
The surprise Ish initially felt was replaced by anger. Squeezing his fingers in his hand he recited  his mantra: Fit in, stay focused, stay alert.
Tor was coughing up blood trying to get back up. Ish saw the guard turn away pushing the other kids forward and quickly took a rash decision. He came down on his knees to support Tor but while apparently he was using his left hand to support him in fact he was searching for Tor’s bag. Quickly he stuck his hand in and started to search for the case with the boy’s glasses. At the front of the bus the guard was getting more agitated.
‘Aren’t you finished yet?’
The baton already slipped out of the sleeve as a warning sign.
‘We’re coming…’ Ish said dutiful.
He pushed Tor forward and followed him closely while reaching out to his back and grabbing Jo’s hand; he refused to let her go.
Right before they descended from the bus he slipped the case in Tor’s back pocket. Feeling something, Tor reached back and immediately recognized the object.
‘You’re going to need is,’ Ish whispered, who just had cashed in his first victory on Management.

But now they had to move on. They already lost too much time and attracted too much attention, no time for sentiment. Outside of the bus, in the terminal, it was sheer chaos and Ish had to struggle to keep Jo close to him. He squeezed her hand hard and dragged her along. If they stayed together they’d survive this. Did Eve have to go through all of this? How big her disappointment must have been.
At the end of the fenced path a formation of soldiers stood waiting. They resembled closely to guards with a mask covering both their mouth and neck, similar plating on the arms, legs and chest. But somehow they were different. Bigger, more buffed, more dangerous. After three days on the bus Ish kind of had figured out how the guards thought and were organized. Behind the threatening and tough appearance they still had some reasoning in them. But these beasts were obviously of a totally different category. They checked who was going in which corridor and ushered the endless stream of arriving young ones to their rightful location. Everybody had to report themselves to one of the two commanders placed at the end of each corridor. Ish couldn’t tell who was the more dangerous; the bigger guards or the evil commanders. As far as he could tell the latter didn’t have any protection; no masks, no weapons, no plating. Only a very tight uniform with a big crest, eyes stripped of emotion and a face without color but with a disgustingly sick smile they couldn’t hold back. Next to them Ish spotted a big black kettle. Steam was pouring out of all its rifts where dozens of iron bars stuck out each labeled with a specific letter.
The first one of bus 122 had reached the end of the corridor and presented himself. One of the guards immediately grabbed his arm and dragged him along to one of the commanders. After lifting up his sleeve they held the boy’s shaking arm in front of the scanner. With a fast pendular movement it shot a band around the wrist. The Shinu bracelet. Gus had informed Ish that everybody was assigned one upon entering the city as a form of ID-card you were to hold on to you for the rest of your life.
Next the bracelet was activated: the shackles locked, small dots lit up and small metal barbs shot in the wrist triggering a muffled sound of pain. The terminal processed the data and the screen displayed the checklist and a code: G3473. The commander nodded and lifted off the lid of the kettle.
As clouds of steam escaped two soldiers held down the first victim while the commander grabbed one of the iron rods and in one smooth movement burnt a fiery red ‘G’ in the boy’s neck. His cries of pain were no longer silent but sounded throughout the entire hall. That was the cue for the other commanders to start. Suddenly reality struck on all who had come off the busses: they all had to pass the scanners. Screams filled the entire terminal. Sometimes dreams became nightmares.
Ish felt Jo squeezing his hand in fear. He himself was confused about what was going on; Gus hadn’t told him any of this. Everybody started to recoil slowly, but they were trapped in the tunnel.
‘Get back in the line!’ This was the moment the guard had been waiting for.
He took out his baton started lashing out wildly about him. The young ones followed back in line, not sure which way would yield the safest outcome: the baton or the iron rod. Those who had passed the scanners were guided out of the terminal through one of the doors. The access to the city was by scanning your Shinu-bracelet.
 
When Ish was up he tried not to give in to the pain. Fit in, stay focused, don’t stand out. He kept repeating his mantra while he presented his wrist to the one of the guards. At that moment a racket broke out in the line next to him. With some help a girl had managed to climb over the fences and was running away as fast as she could. Immediately two guards broke rank and chased her down. In no time they’d caught up to her and dragged her to the ground. Out came the batons and they started beating her up; viciously. At first she still resisted but soon after she lost consciousness. Her face broken in blood, the guards stood up and left her. After wiping their batons clean with her clothes they rejoined their ranks with a smug smile on their faces.
‘Face towards me.’ The soldier told Ish.
Still confused Ish complied and before he knew it the hot iron rod was thrusted into his neck. A scorching pain raged through his entire body but he refused to scream. He had to focus again and not get distracted. A quick glance on the screen told him his code was P8265K97.1. While the tears were running down his face he tried to memorize the number.
‘Go to the door.’
Ish froze and looked behind him to Jo. He had promised not to leave her behind. Couldn’t he just wait until her turn was done? The guard pulled him close and pushed him forward.
‘To the door!’
Ish nodded and made way to the door opening on the left. He slowed down while keeping his eye on Jo. As her wrist was scanned, she too got a code. F573. The commanders looked at each other enigmatically as one nodded towards one of the guards. Quickly they took off the cuffs from his belt and clamped them on Jo.
‘What are you guys doing?!’
They signaled the guard at the wall who came in running and grabbed her along. Without compassion they dragged her to the other side.
‘Ish!’
Her voice echoed between the high walls and consumed his heart. But he couldn’t move. He didn’t have any option that wouldn’t end in them both being in cuffs; he was completely lost. Gus had cheated on him with his promise that he could overcome Management. What else were lies?
Jo was getting dragged out further and further. She shouted his name. Ish tried to avert his eyes and looked at the other young ones, equally perplexed. Tor was next and the close by guard dragged him forward towards the scanner.
‘Through the door!’
Another soldier ran towards Ish and pushed him towards the door that was still standing open for him.
‘You’re holding everybody back.’
 
While Ish was rushing to comply to the guard, he saw how Jo was deported from his life. They hadn’t even entered the city yet and he had already failed.

SHINU, Lives lost of Time, is currently published in Dutch.
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