THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT WOMEN IN MY LIFE stand a few steps in front of me, on either side of the full-length mirror I’m staring into. On my left, my mother and my younger sister, Lily, study me with critical eyes, eager to find something else that needs to be polished or straightened, but after a few seconds, they nod and smile in approval. On my right side is Zara, my best friend. She also beams at me with that knowing look on her face that I’m so familiar with. Then the three of them turn their heads in sync, directing their gaze to my reflection, smiling the whole time. They are satisfied with the last-minute tweaks they considered necessary.
When we arrived at the ceremonial building this morning, they didn’t let me go directly to the auditorium to find my seat with the others. They dragged me into this hallway, on the side of the lobby, to inspect me from head to toe. They had to make sure every detail of my appearance lived up to the occasion.
“It’s the most significant day of your life—you have to look spectacular,” Zara had insisted earlier, and both my mother and Lily couldn’t agree more.
I know they’re right, though for somewhat different reasons than they think.
Starting today, I can live with less fear.
Now they’re less likely to kill me.
At just nineteen years old, I am becoming an officer in the Great National Army of Englandom, the “backbone of our homeland,” as any elementary school kid can recite. Today I’ll be promoted to a higher caste, and with me, my immediate family moves up too. Our future, our protection, are practically guaranteed. The new caste will provide us with the strong shield I so long for.
Since the Council of Governors established the caste system, we’ve been members of the Commons, the largest of the castes comprised of citizens with constitutional rights. The majority of the population with pure English origin belongs to our caste, although there are some exceptions. My maternal grandfather, for example, was of Spanish ancestry, but fortunately, thanks to his patriotic distinctions during the Separatist War, he avoided being degraded when the segregation took place.
And now I’m the one, by my own merits, making my family advance in society.
“So? Am I okay now?” I ask them, anxious to get to the auditorium and finish this ceremonious step before it overwhelms me.
“Of course, Derin. You look so handsome, and very elegant!” says Lily in an enthusiastic tone, speaking for the three of them.
Although she’s already fourteen years old and quite mature, everyone at home still considers her the baby of the family. It’s probably due to our age difference because when she was born, I was already five, and Brian had just turned four. Sometimes he tries to annoy her by saying that he and I were planned children, but she wasn’t, meaning she was a product of “carelessness.” But she’s too smart to be bothered by such nonsense. Physically, she’s almost an exact copy of my mother: the same slender figure, the same upturned nose, the same straight, light brown hair. Their almond-shaped eyes are nearly identical, except Lily’s are brown, like my father’s and Brian’s.
“I hope they catch you on camera during the parade and show you on the giant screens,” she continues. “You know all my friends think you’re hot!”
I know who she’s talking about: her schoolmates, who gossip nervously around me when they come over to our house. I find it funny, though I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention.
I turn my head to the right side of the mirror, to Zara, my best friend—my only friend—to catch her reaction to Lily’s comment.
“Definitely, they’ll all go crazy!” she says, but she smiles at me with a gaze full of complicity. It’s an expression I know well, which I playfully call “mocking malice.” I know exactly what she’s thinking.
For a second, we both enjoy the innocent irony of the comment from my sister, who doesn’t know me as well as my friend.
Zara has been my shadow since elementary school, and we’re the same age. She’s the one person who knows the real me. I trust her completely.
In a way, her story is similar to mine. Her family originally comes from an island in the Caribbean, but due to her grandfather’s heroic actions and loyalty to the country, she now belongs to the Commons. She has her own fears to deal with, though. Because of her dark skin and exotic features—she’s beautiful—she is often the victim of racist insults and slurs. These profanities are commonplace, since the regent himself, the head of the fourteen governors, is very fond of uttering them. He even encourages them, expressing them with a detestable comic air.
“You’re the crazy ones,” I reply with a grin. “I do look good, but that’s it, so don’t exaggerate.”
“Oh my. Our Derin, always so modest and harsh on himself,” Zara says reproachfully, smiling but shaking her head.
“Really, Lieutenant Dark, it’s so hard to convince you,” says Lily. “But even you have to admit that you look gorgeous.”
I stiffen and look sideways to make sure none of my peers are nearby. I don’t want to imagine what they’d say if they heard my little sister calling me gorgeous. They’d never stop mocking me.
“Okay, okay,” I finally give in. “I have to admit that you’ve made me look great, so thanks. But don’t get ahead of yourself, Lily. You still have to wait a bit longer to call me lieutenant.”
My mother, who hasn’t intervened in our conversation, just smiles with teary eyes, nodding along to everything Zara and Lily say.
“Mom, what do you think?” I ask her. “Do you think these two are right?”
She broadens her smile even more and dries a tear with the handkerchief she hasn’t let go of all morning.
“Of course, darling, you look lovely,” she replies. “You’ll shine up there. We’re so proud of you.”
Lovely… It seems that today I’ll have to accept all kinds of pompous, feminine adjectives. I find them horribly inadequate, but I won’t complain about it to my mother right now. She’s very excited and emotional.
I haven’t seen her so happy in a long time. She’s gleaming and can’t stop smiling. It’s evident that she feels very proud of me, and that fills me with joy. But I also recognize in her look and her posture a kind of relief. As if a heavy weight has been lifted off her. As if she was aware of the danger that I’ve always shouldered, which has been considerably reduced now, though it will never disappear completely.
Somehow, perhaps from maternal intuition, she must understand that they can’t hurt me now, at least not so easily.
As members of the Commons, we were citizens with rights, but we were also exposed to our country’s deficiencies and dangers, such as the scarcity of almost everything, the growing restrictions of certain individual freedoms, and above all, the arbitrary punishments and executions. Sure, in comparison to what the others—the majority—suffer, we should be grateful: we can live in London and breathe clean air, we have access to good education and health, we all work and earn credits, and we’ve never lacked food, however basic and tasteless it may sometimes be.
But even as citizens with rights, the shadow of the ever-present risk of losing everything is always on us, one way or another. Any severe misconduct from any of us means the whole family is in danger of falling out of favor—of suffering the pain and humiliation of being degraded to the Disloyal caste, the lowest caste of society, whose members have no rights and live in gigantic ghettos outside our cities.
But as of today, I have fewer reasons to worry about that. Today, my family and I become Patriots.
Above the Commons, the members of the Patriots are the most privileged group of the population—apart from our leaders, of course. Our new rank provides us with a house in a better area—almost twice the size of our current comfortable dwelling— equipped with luxuries that, up to now, we have only been able to dream of. We get the right to have an eCar (together, we already have enough credits to buy one), and we’ll have access to a range of restricted consumer products, especially more natural and tastier food than the synthetic kind our current diet is based on. There’s also the possibility of getting a special permit to leave the country for a few days. But most importantly, the caste provides us with a much stronger degree of protection against punishments, the loss of our privileges, and degradation.
In the Patriots, I’ll be safe. We’ll all be safe now.
“Thanks, Mom,” I reply. “I owe it to you… to all of you. But look at you, you look amazing. You have all the bearing of a Patriot.”
“That’s sweet, darling, but I’ve barely managed to dress up a little bit,” she says, somewhat embarrassed because she must be aware that her elegance and distinction make her look striking, and she’s unused to that, being a modest person.
“Can you see now where my modesty comes from?” I ask Lily and Zara, smiling. “So don’t blame me.” I turn to my mother again and say to her, “You have the right to be dazzling, Mom, you’re a Patriot now. Indeed, you could even pass for a Patrician!”
The Patricians are the highest, the smallest, and most exclusive of the four castes in our society. You could say they’re what we used to call “aristocracy,” although now that term is forbidden. They’re the ones who control the Government, the Army, all the institutions of the State, the economy, and in general, all the country’s wealth. We can’t say it out loud, but everyone knows it: the Patricians are the owners of Englandom.
“Oh, Derin, the things you say,” replies my mother, looking at the simple blue dress she’s wearing. “How could anyone think that I’m a Patrician, wearing this? No Patrician woman would ever wear anything made of Petex.”
“Mom, I can assure you, your dress looks like it’s made with imported fabrics, not Petex,” I say bluntly, though deep down I know she’s right.
Since the only abundant resource in the country is oil, which no one else in the rest of the world is interested in, the government technicians invented Petrotextile, or Petex, a synthetic textile that is highly versatile and durable. Everything in Englandom seems to be made of Petex. For our clothes, the Commons and the Patriots have some variety of textures and colors. The Disloyal must settle for coarse fabrics in muted tones, usually in shades of grey and greenish brown.
“But, anyway, it’s about time,” I say to my “three girls,” as I usually refer to them. “You need to go find Dad and Brian. See you in a bit.”
“Good luck, darling,” my mother wishes me. “Enjoy your ceremony.”
“Good luck, Derin!” Zara and Lily say at the same time.
Before leaving, I gaze one last time at the image in the mirror.
I recognize my own reflection, but a distant voice in my head tries to convince me that I’m looking at somebody else. I see a young man, six feet tall with a slim, athletic build, short and straight dark brown hair, and grey eyes (I try to recognize my mother’s in them, but I’m not sure). As always when I stand in front of a mirror, I fixate on the scar that crosses my left eyebrow diagonally and divides it into two. As always, it brings back bad memories. I’m wearing the elegant dress uniform: black pants and leather boots, a long-sleeved scarlet coat with a high neckline, gold buttons and badges, a black leather belt with a golden buckle, white gloves, and a black peaked cap with golden embroidery.
It’s the living image of the gleaming young officer on the cover of the thick book, History of the Great National Army of Englandom… But it’s not me.
THE AUDITORIUM IS FILLED TO THE VERY LAST SEAT.
For a moment, I don’t understand how it’s possible that the place is so packed, but then I realize what’s going on. They’ve surely “invited” additional people so that the ceremony looks better. It’s possible they’ll pick some images from our graduation to show during the broadcast of the grand celebration that will take place later.
Because this year, the date of our graduation from the Military Academy wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. Today, we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of our country: the Great Nation of Imperial Englandom. The country that the first governors established after winning the Separatist War.
That was the war that almost escalated into a world conflict because of the intervention of the European hegemonic bloc and other foreign forces. It culminated in the separation of Northern Ireland and the definite submission of Scotland, which disappeared as an independent nation. The governors founded Englandom on the island formerly known as Great Britain: they closed the borders, initiated segregation of the people, and undertook the task of creating a new society, the society of the castes. Anyone with foreign blood, or who hadn’t demonstrated their profound loyalty to the fatherland, became a Disloyal.
I find it a bit strange to think that our country is barely thirty years old.
It’s the only country I know—very few people have permits to get out, and the Government censors all information from abroad—so for me it feels like it’s been this way for centuries, but I know that’s not true, and I know it could be different… better.
Some older people who knew the outside world before the war—and who no longer care about being detained as traitors and executed—express a sad verdict: even though we’re in the year 2055, instead of being modern, our country seems to have gone back a century. While the rest of the world advances by leaps and bounds—according to the propaganda of the regime’s enemies, whose dissemination is punishable by death—we’re stuck in the past, with no way forward.
For my part, I try my best to help improve the country. Although it’s not easy.
But those musings are for another day. Today, everything has to stay positive.
My peers and I take up the first two rows of the auditorium. I’m in the second row, three seats from the right aisle. Those three seats are empty because I’ll be the last one to go on stage. They call us according to the alphabetical order of our surnames, and since mine begins with “D,” I normally should be one of the first; but as I got the best scores on the graduation tests, I’ll receive a special honor at the end.
On the stage, they’ve placed a dark wooden podium on the left side, where Captain Alan Foster, our commander, will lead the ceremony. A little farther back, in the center, there’s a long table with a white tablecloth. Four representatives of the Government and the military high command are sitting behind it.
Captain Foster begins calling the cadets.
Each one of my peers gets up when he hears his name and walks up to the stage; there, he receives the official badges and heads to the dignitaries’ table to be congratulated. Then each new officer walks off the stage using the steps on the opposite side and returns to his seat.
When the last of my peers, Rob Schilling, returns from the stage and takes the empty seat to my left once more, my heart begins to pound. I hide it well, but I’m really quite shy. I hate being the center of attention. It requires tremendous physical and mental effort to conceal my nervousness. I try to calm down, but it feels like the whole audience can hear the thunder coming out of my chest. I keep looking forward, stunned.
I don’t catch all the phrases the captain says, which barely reach my ears. I know that he’s praising me because I vaguely pick up that he mentions “his exceptional abilities in Military Strategy” and “his outstanding performance in Territorial Control.” When he says something about “his exemplary discipline, leadership, and camaraderie,” I freeze. I fear that I won’t be able to get up when he calls my name.
“Lieutenant Derin Dark,” I hear in the distance.
My legs lift me and take me to the stage like a robot. I walk up the steps and head toward Captain Foster. I stop in front of him and execute the military salute flawlessly, bringing my right hand toward my temple with my fingers joined together. The captain shakes my hand firmly and gives the officer’s badges to me.
“Congratulations, Lieutenant Dark, you deserve it. I’m very proud of you,” he says with a genuine smile. Then he pins the Graduation Honors medal for being first in my class on the left side of my coat, above my chest.
“Thank you, captain,” I reply earnestly, tilting my head a bit forward.
I turn to the audience, which erupts into deafening applause. I remain like this for a couple of seconds, as required by the protocol, looking straight ahead with a blank stare. I know that my family is near the center of the auditorium, but I avoid looking down. I don’t want to see my mother and Lily crying; I can’t allow my eyes to get wet. I must not show any weakness.
I walk to the dignitaries’ table to shake their hands. Unintentionally, I raise my eyes a fraction of a second toward the huge, square crimson banner that hangs over them, with images and letters embroidered in gold: the flag of Englandom.
It consists of a garland or crown formed by fourteen lions, each bearing a sword in its claws (these symbolize the fourteen protectorates). In the center of the crown, in very large letters, is the acronym of the country: “GNIE”; below it, a bit smaller and following the curve of the garland of lions, is the full name: “GREAT NATION OF IMPERIAL ENGLANDOM”; and above the acronym, also following the curve of the garland, are the three supreme virtues: “PRIDE, JUSTICE, and FREEDOM.”
A lump forms in my throat when I read those words.
Justice and freedom? How far we truly are from achieving them!
The four representatives from the Government and Army ceremoniously express their congratulations and their best wishes that I continue to serve the country with dedication and loyalty. I feel as if each one of them has slapped me.
Why can’t I just enjoy this moment like a normal person?
Upon my return to my seat, the captain indicates that the graduation ceremony is over, and reminds the audience that it’s a citizen’s duty to participate in the commemorative celebrations on this day. Before leaving the auditorium, the whole audience stands up, and we all sing the national anthem in a single zealous voice.
When the official photographers finish taking our pictures, I join my family in the lobby.
Lily and my mother rush toward me and hang themselves from my neck with emotional displays of affection. Zara also hugs me but doesn’t say anything. I understand that her strong embrace is more than congratulations: she wishes me, without words, lots of strength and courage.
My father and my brother Brian, more composed, approach me next:
“Congratulations, son. We’re very proud of you,” says my father, hugging me.
“Thanks, Dad… I owe it to all of you,” I answer, trying to keep my voice from breaking.
“Nonsense,” he replies very seriously. “Everything is because of your own merit. It’s the reward for all your efforts and sacrifices. Besides, we’re the ones who are grateful. Thanks to you, our life will improve considerably.”
Now he’s the one whose voice breaks. He hugs me again.
My father has always supported my decision to pursue a military career, although, at times, I’ve questioned whether he does it out of sincere conviction or resignation. Deep down, I feel that he shares the concerns of my brother, who disapproves of my decision to become part of “the system.”
Brian and my father don’t hide their disapproval of our society and the Government’s organization. It’s not that I’m blind to all the faults and imbalances (they’re obvious), or that I ignore the abuses and discrimination suffered by a large part of the population. On the contrary, I’m fully aware of what’s wrong. Besides, I have a personal interest in changing certain things because I could become a victim of them myself… and my family with me. But I firmly believe that only from within, like a cog in the machinery, can we have a real positive impact.
I wish the two of them could understand me better, but I have to remind myself that they don’t know my internal motivations. So, we stick to discussions about the facts that are visible to all, though only at home. It’s too dangerous to criticize the Government in public or to seem unsure of one’s own patriotic loyalty, especially since the attacks perpetrated by the insurgents have increased considerably.
These rebel groups, called “radkers” (or radical hackers) by the Government, constantly try to infiltrate and wreak havoc on the main infrastructures vital for the functioning of our social and economic system. They’re the regime’s number one enemy and are considered the country’s greatest danger. As a new Army officer, the rebels are now my problem as well.
Now it’s Brian’s turn to congratulate me.
As he approaches me, I feel guilty at the sight of the fading purple blotch on his left temple, where I punched him.
Our relationship isn’t the most brotherly. Not over a week ago we had our last confrontation, which ended in a fistfight. Even though he managed to hit me hard in the ribs too, and I still feel pain where the blow bruised me, I hit him harder. Brian is only a couple of inches shorter than me, but he’s more buff. My great advantage is my military training. When he can’t control his temper and decides to use his fists against me, he never wins.
Like my father, Brian has curly, copper-colored hair, and pale skin; he also has large, expressive brown eyes, a fleshy nose, and freckles on his face. Some friends say that he and I are each other’s nemesis: we are opposites, not only physically, but also personality-wise. Brian is messy, restless, impulsive, and very outgoing. He doesn’t mince his words, saying what he thinks without considering the consequences too much. Since he can’t freely express his criticisms of the system in public, I think he blows off steam by reproaching me for my “disgusting” loyalty.
Brian looks at me and smiles. Although he doesn’t hug me—thank goodness, that would be too awkward—he pats me on my left arm, near my shoulder.
“Well, champ,” he says, “you did it. Congratulations… Seriously, I’m happy for you.”
I know it’s not easy for him to say that.
“Hey, come on, you’re not going to start crying too, right?” I say in a playful tone, to loosen up the tension of the moment.
“Didn’t you see me back there?” he replies. “Everyone handed me their handkerchiefs. I couldn’t hold back the tears.”
“Yeah, yeah, your eyes are super swollen from all the crying.”
It’s a pity that we have become distant from each other. I really miss him. I hope one day we’ll be able to heal the wounds.
His path is the same as my father’s: teaching. I hope his anger and frustration will fade over time, at least when he becomes a teacher. He just turned eighteen, so one can expect that maturity and a university degree will help him calm down.
Though I doubt he’ll change a lot… He’s too impulsive and stubborn.
A good example of his defiant nature is his decision to date Mia, a girl from the Strip, the largest ghetto on the outskirts of London, where millions of Disloyal live. I’m not saying he’s not in love, because I know for a fact that he’s crazy about her, but it’s always seemed to me that Brian has never paid particular attention to any girl who wasn’t a Disloyal as if he intentionally wants to show off his rebelliousness. Mia is going to become a kindergarten teacher, as far as I know, but she won’t be able to teach in London and will have to stay in the Strip.
If one day he marries her, Brian will be degraded to Disloyal, lose all his caste privileges, and have to leave the city. But for the time being, he’s here and makes a great effort to be nice. I know he’s trying hard not to ruin my day.
“Well, the moment for emotions and crying is over now,” I say as I pat him on his left arm too. “Anyway, thank you, I appreciate it.”
“Sure. As Dad said, you really deserve it. In spite of everything.”
He seems to mean what he’s saying; it moves me a little. He shows me a faint but genuine smile and then walks away.
However small, this is the only show of affection that can be expected between us.