The bells of the Republic had stopped ringing a while ago. She honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard them. Probably three months ago, when that black cloud of helicopters had come out of nowhere and attacked The Main Frame. That day, everything stopped. The computers, radios, TVs, electric cards. Some people, those with microchips, who hadn’t had an original thought in years, dropped dead.
She still hummed the tune the bells used to ring out. From the other side of the flat, she sometimes heard her sing along.
Life was different since everything stopped working.
On the other side of the city, things were just as strange. Soldiers were everywhere, and while at first people were afraid, it soon became common knowledge that they were just friendly men in uniform.
They told him that life was better now.
He believed it, especially after he saw the way the sun glinted off the badges on their chests.
Life was much better now.
She knew life was better now, without the microchips and censored literature and with actual lives slowly being built. Her mother had long passed away in a rehabilitation camp, and her father had been nowhere to be found when the Republic fell. But they didn’t remember a life before the War.
But she’d heard whispers about how their old one was full of mistakes and injustices.
But didn’t that mean that now the hard part was accepting freedom?
He didn’t remember what his family name was. The soldiers said it was OK – something in the records would come up eventually.
They gave him chocolate and whiskey and books to read. They told him cigarettes were bad for him and he stopped smoking. Soon, he was joining the soldiers on their morning run.
This was better.
This was still controlled.
She took comfort in knowing that, at least now, nobody looked at them funny if they saw them walking down the streets together, holding hands.
It almost seemed like all the people who refused to cooperate with their new freedom were disappearing.
The chocolate tasted better now, and the water didn’t leave the lingering smell of sulphur behind it crushing your lips. Slowly, she was starting to forget what it had been like, four months ago, to live under the constant fear of Something or Someone attacking them out of nowhere.
She sometimes saw people darting their eyes quickly up towards the space where The Main Frame used to sit, imposing its dark shadow over everybody. They’d sigh in relief when they realized it wasn’t there anymore – all that it had left behind was a clear blue sky. They’d sigh in relief when they remembered that they had no idea to worry anymore.
And then, only then, would she remember what scared animals they were.
He remembered seeing significantly less happier people before, if this is what happy people looked like. Did happy people go about their business without flinching, without staring up once to stare at the giant buildings that surrounded them? Were happy people the mark that things really were better?
He looked at himself in the mirror and realized that happy people didn’t have haunting looks in their eyes, or bags under their eyes. Happy people were clean cut and weren’t afraid to show their teeth when they smiled.
If that was happiness, or at least what happiness looked like, then he was definitely one of them.
She actually got a job at the library. It was a strange concept – people were actually reading again. There were whole novels written about societies like theirs, the librarian/soldier who lead her through the building told her. “Dystopians, they call them. At least in literature. Everyone used to think they were figments of imagination. As if society can’t ever get that bad. But then you guys showed up out of nowhere and…well…”
“Here we are,” she muttered.
“Yes, forty years a bit too late, here we are,” he said, sighing as he looked down the corridor. “Sometimes I wonder if maybe we could have come earlier for you all, it wouldn’t have been so bad.”
Was it really that bad?
“This is a better life for you,” he said to her, the words echoing down the half-empty book shelves and bouncing off the hard back covers.
Who are you trying to convince?
“You can’t run with us every day, Citizen,” the Lieutenant at the front of the line of jogging officials said to him as he crouched down to catch his breath, his gasps misty in the early morning air.
“Sir…wi…all due….res’ct,” he gasped out, swallowing once and straightening up to speak, “I’m pretty sure….I can keep up…somehow.”
“You’re a stubborn one, you are,” one of the Generals at the front said, but the less important ones, the ones standing near him, just smiled at him.
“Privates! Let’s go!”
They all started jogging off against, and he squared his shoulders and started to run again behind them.
He liked routine. He wasn’t willing to give it up so easily.
When Marta ended up in the hospital, she was actually allowed in to see her. The shock at hearing her name being called out in the waiting room, where before she would have sat for hours in anticipation of a call that never arrived, was enough to send her into a small stupor. But she quickly shook it off and shot to the front desk, where the nice lady with greying hair and a white uniform pointed her towards blue swinging doors.
“Your partner is through there. A doctor’s waiting for you behind the doors to take you to her.”
It was so strange, being acknowledged like this.
The doctor at the doors was flipping through a chart and some important-looking documents, and he smiled at her the minute he saw her.
“Marta has breathing problems often, right?”
He smiled gently at her again and led her down the corridor. “She’s fine, really. Just needs some rest and a bit of monitoring, but as her partner you’re more than welcome to stay for as long as you like.”
“Not a problem.”
He whisked out of the room, closing the door. Marta had never had a room like this before, all to herself and away from the noise, with nice doctors who let her sit next to her.
“This is…so weird,” she laughed in raspy breaths, and she shrugged, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“They actually let me in this time.”
“These people are different, honey. We don’t have to hide anymore.”
She knew that that was true, that it was better. Everything was telling her that it was.
But it would take a while to get used to.
He thought he saw his mother today, but it was only his sister, walking out of the hospital with a dazed look on her face. He hadn’t spoken to her since The Act of Conduct 568 had come out – “Anybody participating in a non-State Mandated Relationship will be immediately punished and incarcerated.” He knew that was his fault now – the Republic had demanded that he cut off all ties to people who would ruin his chance of becoming the next Leader.
He secretly hoped she’d look at him, wonder if he looked exactly like their father, but she was too lost in thought to even look past the paces her feet were making.
But maybe it was best that she didn’t see him.
Her brother had completely disappeared off the face of the earth. She didn’t think too much about him, but she did occasionally throw a thought his way. And today, as the skies went grey, she remembered one of the last times she had seen him before The Republic had snatched him up. He had been sitting at their bay window, staring out at the sky, and smiling wistfully.
Maybe it was for the best that she didn’t see him, that she never finds out what happened to him. He was long gone now, taken in by the Republic and probably killed when the microchips stopped working. She’d rather not know what had happened to him.
It was the price for change, after all.
The bells started ringing again a year after they had stopped. An entire population of people were startled out of a quiet Saturday morning and straight to their windows, their eyes wide with fear, until they realized that it was only the stuff they had read about in books.
“Church bells,” Marta whispered from her seat on the sofa, a cough racking her body before she could finish the phrase.
From the window, she sighed in agreement and thought that if there was one thing in the world that didn’t change, it was fear.
As he put on his uniform, golden badge glinting on his chest, he welcomed the sense of belonging to a living breathing machine, and realized that even if his surroundings around him changed, then his human nature never would.
Stomping his boots on and out of the barracks, he embraced the control that came with the drill sergeant’s voice.