After the swim I feel lighter, but the fresh breeze on my wet skin is distinctly uncomfortable. Not as uncomfortable as the ordeal ahead of me tonight, I fear. Reluctantly, I head for home.
Our pod is exactly the same as all the others. Four circular structures, bubbling out from a shared stem in the centre, where the pod’s ablution block is. From the air, each pod must look like a metal four-leaf clover, and our hub a great grey cluster of them, sprouting out on the hillside along the coast and following the gentle curve of the bay. Our hub has no name. The Polis calls our region “Sector Four”, and the hub is the Sector Four Hub. This is far too nameless, so over the years it has slowly become known as Greytown. Not very imaginative, I know, but it’s a perfect name for the collection of grey pods which gather around a central grey market square, along with a few other grey stone buildings. The Polis sure likes grey.
There are many hubs, but ours was one of the first. The purpose of the hubs is to offer security to the people, with the central building being a garrison, and Polis soldiers always in residence. In return for peace, the residents of the hub provide the Polis with the fruits of their labours. It can be anything – fruit, meat, wheat, milk, honey, nuts, wool, clothing – as long as it fulfils each individual’s quota. There are six hubs in operation, and they all contain houses exactly the same as our pods, although I haven’t seen them. I’ve never been outside my sector, and except for a few precious day trips, have rarely left the hub.
Before the hubs, it was chaos.
Small bands of people were barely surviving on their own. Some settled in one location and tried farming for survival, but many more roved from place to place, robbing from those who stayed put - the easy targets. Violence, disease and starvation were rife. The population which had escaped the Sweeping Sickness through enforced isolation, was turning in on itself, and our numbers were down to less than a fifth within a decade.
From this mess emerged the Polis. A group of ex-military types with the manpower and technology to unify our broken society and bring peace to the entire country.
The official story; the one we are taught in school, is that the Polis saved us. The kids my age and younger accept it without question and follow the laws without hesitation. It’s just as well because reprimands are usually immediate and always painful. The price for our security is our acceptance. But I keep my ears open, and some of my older neighbours are less than careful with their words. I know that there are other stories, with other points of view.
We can leave at any time, and some do. We can return to the bush and a more basic way of life, giving up our right to the peace and stability which the Polis provides for us at the hubs. However, most don’t. Life is easy here.
The structures we live in were constructed maybe eighty years ago, when the Polis began its mission to bring peace to our country. They are purposely utilitarian. They provide shelter from the weather and that is it. They were designed for function and not form, but I have always found them strangely beautiful. Their curves call to my mind the curves of the landscape around me, and they seem in tune with their surroundings - the sweeping bay and the rolling hills – in a way that the other Polis buildings, squat and square and bland, are not. When I was little I imagined that the multitude of round little pods was a harvest of some kind of new grey fungus, fat with life and ready to be plucked from its stem.
Each pod of four units is basically self-sufficient. We catch our own rainwater on the roof, which is stored in large tanks and feeds the ablution block and the units’ kitchen areas. Also on the roof are large solar panels which daily recharge communal power cells, providing us with electricity for lighting, heating and cooking.
It all sounds ideal. Food, electricity, education, warmth, peace, security, and community. Who would want to leave? I asked Grandad this very question, when a small group of four – two teenaged kids and their parents – left a month or so back. “A gilded cage is still a cage,” was his answer. Which really told me very little, but I think I understood his point, and it gave me something to consider.
Approaching the pod, I can see Grandad working in his veggie garden. I use my pass key and am about to enter our unit when I hear a shout behind me.
“Arcadia!” I recognise the voice before I see him, and my heart immediately leaps.
“Bastian! I didn’t know you were home!” He folds me in his arms, then easily picks me up and swings me round in a full circle. I let out an undignified whoop. There is no-one in the world like Bastian. He’s sort of my cousin, being Auntie Marama’s son, but since Auntie Marama isn’t really my auntie either, we’re not blood relatives.
While he holds me up, I plant a quick affectionate kiss on his cheek. I could never do this from the ground. His reaction surprises me. His face immediately turns beetroot red and he puts me down. His eyes don’t meet mine, but he’s beaming from ear to ear. I’ve known him since I was born, and we’ve grown up together. I’ve never gotten that reaction before though, and I can’t help but like it. Maybe he has finally noticed that I’m a woman now.
We pull apart, and I comment on his size. “Do they inject something into the Polis food? You need to stop growing, or you won’t fit through the door.” He just grins down at me.
It’s true though. He’s always been bigger than the other boys his age, a head and shoulders over the rest of his class, but now that he’s eighteen he’s filled out too. It’s like hugging a bear. Bastian is the eldest in his family, and since the eldest spends half the year working for the Polis, I haven’t seen him for six months. It’s been like this since he turned thirteen, and I miss him every day he’s away. Although hard to tell from his military haircut, his hair is a pale shade of brown. By the time his six month reprieve is up it will fall in a thick shock over his eyes and he’ll be forever pushing it back.
“It’s good to see you, Arcadia,” I hear his voice rumbling in his chest while he squeezes me against him.
“How’s Chloe?” The newest mother in our hub is Bastian’s sister, and the same age as me.
Bastian shakes his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her yet.” I notice for the first time that he’s still in khakis and has dropped a duffel bag at his feet. I realise that he came straight to me, which warms me from the inside out.
We go round the back where Grandad and Bastian greet each other. He has some canes that need putting up for beans and snow peas, so we set to work setting them out for him, and he heads inside to make tea. It’s good to have something to do, because I can turn my face away from Bastian. An inane grin has stapled itself in place and I don’t want him to see it.
“So, what did they teach you this time? How to make daisy chains?”
He knows I’m laughing at him. “I’ll have you know, making a good daisy chain is pretty technically difficult. It takes months to master. And it has many military uses.”
“You could use it to trip up your enemy.”
“Or to spring shut like a trap.”
I shake my head, but I’m smiling.
Calling the time spent by hubbites in the Polis as “military training” is something of a joke. Essentially, there are two types of armies in the Polis, both trained completely differently. One is for the Polis citizens – all their kids go through it from thirteen to eighteen. They concentrate on combat training and a host of other useful defence and survival skills - although for the rest of us this is a bit of a guess. The other army is made up of teens from the hubs; the eldest child of every family, who go to train in the Polis for six months of every year, like Bastian. When they graduate from their training at eighteen, they continue to serve the Polis for their half year, the rest spent on Reprieve back in their home towns. This Polis service continues until they are forty.
“Polisborn and Firstborn,” I mutter, sombre now. “Not that I mind you learning about daisies…”
“I know, Arcadia.”
“But they take you away for half a year and they don’t even teach you anything interesting.”
He’s become more serious too, matching my tone, but he’s defensive also. This is a familiar subject for us. “I think it’s interesting. You should see the kind of trucks they’ve got up there. And the two-wheelers, trail bikes, fuel tankers, ATVs, the tanks… I’ve even gotten to work on a helicopter. They’re really cool, Dia. Interesting.”
Although he’s in the army, Bastian’s military training is just the basics. It seems to be marching, running about, shining boots, and standing in a straight line come rain, wind or snow. I think it’s all about learning to follow orders. Maybe there’s some self-defence and Polis history. The army part ends there, and the skill specific training begins. For some, it’s medical. For others, clerical, electrical, or construction. Bastian has been put into the automotive section, which basically means he’s a mechanic. That part, he loves.
Firstborn are given privileges and treated a bit better than the average hubbite, which I guess is the Polis’ way of trying to make up for the fact that they’re like unpaid labour for the city. They’re certainly not classed as Polis citizens, but they do get more opportunities and are given a little respect by the Polisborn.
“Any new strays?” I ask, and he laughs. Bastian can’t help himself, he always fights for the underdog. I guess you could say it’s his weakness. I tease him that he collects waifs and strays.
“There might be a few,” is his reply. I sigh. I really don’t mind him looking after others but it’s when he stands up for them that he gets himself into trouble. The first time he was home it took him a week to even come out of his room, and another before he could even speak about it. I’d been so excited to hear about what he’d been up to, it felt like an eternity for a twelve year old. That year was the first time I’d been to the Spring Festival without him and it wasn’t the same.
“What about the big kids? Did you play nice with the other children?” My light tone hides the importance of the question.
He shrugs, looping a piece of green string around the top of a cane. “I always play nice. But they don’t bother me anymore.” I’m grateful for his size. You’d have to be nuts to take him on. They used to, though. The Polisborn captains used to take particular delight in finding and exploiting any of their young charges’ weaknesses, from fear of the dark, to spiders and the most common of all, pain. I mean, who isn’t afraid of pain, right? Reading between the lines of Bastian’s hesitant stories, I got the feeling that his weakness gave them the most pleasure of all - by putting one of his friends through their own personal hell, they got two for the price of one, so to speak.
“Any new rules?”
“Let’s see… don’t nark. Don’t show weakness, fear or pain. Don’t get caught out of bounds. Don’t answer back to a Polis. Don’t get caught stealing.”
That last one’s new. I straighten up from the seeds I’m laying out. “Don’t get caught stealing? Not, don’t steal?”
“Nope, it’s that simple. Stealing’s fine. Just don’t get caught.”
I’m flabbergasted, but I know I shouldn’t be. I’ve never understood the Polis way of life. “How did you learn that one?”
He shakes his head. “It wasn’t me.” Of late he’s got less and less to report when he’s on reprieve, so I suppose he must be learning to toe the line. “And it’s not a story you want to hear.”
This is most likely true. Stories of Polis cruelty are not ones I enjoy listening to. They just make me feel frustrated and trapped. I get the feeling he’s been toning them down the last couple of Reprieves, either selecting carefully what to tell me, or keeping himself out of trouble.
Whatever the cause, he seems calmer, and for that I’m grateful.
He follows me to Grandad’s shed, where I climb up on an old ladder to reach some pots on the highest shelf.
“Hey, watch yourself! Let me do that,” he puts a hand on my leg to make sure I’m steady.
“I’m fine, Bastian,” I laugh. “How do you suppose I cope for half the year without you?”
Climbing back down and once again safely on the ground, I pass him half the pots. “Well, I’m here now,” he points out. “You should be more careful. What if you fell?”
“I’ll cope with that if it happens,” I reply huffily.
I understand that he’s being protective, but his concern is a reminder of the greatest distinction between us, and it grates. I turn my face away from him and move to fill the pots with compost.
Bastian is Firstborn, which means he’s valuable to the Polis. Important. Worthy… of all sorts of things, including medical attention. Whereas I am Unworthy. If something happens to me, I’m pretty much on my own.
It’s also the reason that he knows nothing about my night outings, and I have no intention of him finding out. Much as he looks after others, he would draw the line at weak babies, believing that the personal risk is too great. He would never understand the compulsion that sends me out when a baby is exposed, and would find ways of stopping me.
“You’ll be there tonight?” Bastian asks, changing the subject. “At the naming ceremony?”
I shrug. “You know I will be. Once we’re old enough, all the women have to be there.”
“I could wait for you afterwards, if you want some moral support.”
“That would be… yes, please. Although I hope that everything will be…”
I don’t look at him, but I can feel him watching me in the silence that follows. His tone is serious when he says, “It will be ok. Chloe is healthy, and young. She’s looked after herself. The baby will be fine.”
“I’m sure,” I nod. “I just want tonight to be over.” No-one knows better than I the repercussions of a baby not passing inspection. For many mothers, the stigma of having birthed an Unworthy baby is difficult to bear, only reversed when she leaves it in the circle. For the baby of course, it means almost certain death.
But not for me. Even the elements didn’t want me.
Bastian smiles, thinking of his sister the last time he saw her. “You’d think she was carrying a Counsellor, the way she acted after she found out she was pregnant! Special food and Polis medicines, not having to meet even half of her quota.” He shakes his head. “With all that special treatment, it’s surprising any babies fail the inspection. In the hubs it’s just a physical exam. I mean, when was the last time we had one here in Greytown?”
I can’t answer him, and simply shake my head. Three days ago, I think, but it sticks in my throat. Each and every rejected infant is etched into my memory, and not just because of the hours spent on damp leaves in the forest. It’s also the weight of expectation which the mothers place firmly on my shoulders. My existence gives them hope, it’s as simple as that. Until the baby’s death, when it’s dashed again, and they have to live with the loss of their child. At that point, I’m no longer a symbol of hope to them but a painful reminder that their child wasn’t strong enough to survive in our world.
I’ve stopped what I’m doing and am staring at my hands. This is the biggest issue of contention between us, and I have learned to hold my tongue for fear of giving away my most closely guarded secret. Bastian is looking at me, waiting till I come back from where my thoughts have taken me.
“There is something I want to talk to you about while I’m on Reprieve. Something important,” he says.
“Oh?” This sounds interesting. His eyes are smiling, so I’m intrigued rather than worried. I can also see that he’s not going to tell me anymore right now. Just then Grandad calls from the pod, and we tidy up what we’re doing to head inside.
As we move down the path he takes my grubby, earth stained hand in his, and when I see him smile down at me again a jittery, jumpy feeling starts in my stomach. Perhaps I do have an idea what he wants to talk to me about, and it makes me excited and shy at the same time.
At the door to the pod he takes his leave. “I should really call round to Mum’s,” he smiles apologetically. “But I’ll see you tonight. I missed you, Arcadia,” he says, and squeezes my hand.
I stifle my dopey smile in the hallway. I’m still not looking forward to the Naming tonight, but with seeing Bastian afterwards, my focus has drastically shifted.
Inside, Grandad has made three mugs of tea.
“He’s not stopping?” he asks me.
I shake my head. “He hasn’t called at home yet.” I turn away from his knowing look. I go to wash up, giving the heat on my face time to cool.
We sip in silence, the sounds of other workers returning home reaching us. Across the hall, the Martell children are home from school, loud voices combining with the clomping of their shoes. Before long we hear the screen in their pod come on. My eyes flick over to ours, mounted on the wall of the main room. It’s hardly ever used. When I was little Grandad would heavily censor what I was allowed to watch, even though I would beg and plead with him. The brightly coloured images hold such appeal for young minds. As I got older I was able to regard the panel with a little more discernment, and could see a certain regularity to the shows. Stories of great valour, where the hero often sacrifices their own comfort for the good of others, or documentaries about our history and the history of the ancients, who lived in the time before the Sickness. Through it all, the strong overtones of conformity and submission.
“Arcadia,” Grandad brings me out of my reverie. “Don’t let that boy limit you.”
I have to think for a second about who he’s meaning, he’s caught me completely by surprise. I frown into my tea. “Limit me?”
“Don’t let him tell you what you can and can’t do.”
His caution confuses me. “If you mean Bastian, he’s never limited me. He only wants me to be safe.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” he nods. “He thinks that you need looking after. He wants to wrap you in a soft blanket.”
“Well, what’s wrong with a soft blanket?”
“You can’t wrap yourself in it forever. Plus, what happens to him when you no longer need it?”
I’m starting to feel very uncomfortable with the direction the conversation is taking. “Come on, Grandad. Bastian is Firstborn. I’m Unworthy. If he does want to look after me, then I’m the luckiest girl in the hub.”
“Your mark has nothing to do with it,” he says. “You need to choose a partner on his own merits, not on how grateful you feel that he’s looked your way.”
How can he use the word “choose” as though I have options? I am undesirable to everyone because of my mark. An Unworthy mother is likely to pass on weakness to her children. Why would anyone willingly enter into that kind of relationship? The fact that Bastian might be willing to overlook it is nothing short of incredible. However, I know him well enough not to be surprised. He’s got a heart that matches his height.
“He’s not the first one who’s looked my way, Grandad, he’s the only one. How many suitors do you see? I’m seventeen. Chloe has already had her first baby. And the other girls -”
He puts his hand over mine on the counter. “I know how hard this must sound. I just don’t want you to be in a rush to settle down.”
I shake my head in confusion. I’m not sure what he wants me to do, how he can expect me to live as though I’m not marked.