In less than an hour my life will end.
Some of the other Denounced said I would mess my pants when my time came. They said worse words, of course, but I wasn’t listening because I’m determined to die with dignity. It was the same when I ate my last meal of burger-and-chips followed by chocolate pudding. The dessert was served with fresh whipped cream, something I’ve never eaten before. I ate it slowly with a smile on my face while a guard watched over me. Jack told me it was okay to feel scared. It’s normal, he said. All the boys, even the tough ones, can lose it; the girls, too, when your time comes.
But I’m not going lose it, I tell myself, as three men step into my cell.
One of them I know.
Two of them I don’t.
Jack is my guard and the person responsible for my day-to-day welfare. He’s taken me from my cell each morning to the Court House and has looked after me as best he can in the seven weeks I’ve spent in the Holding Centre. He’s wearing a freshly pressed dark-beige guard’s uniform and his face is more red and sweaty than usual. He struggles with his weight and he’s terrified the Holding Service Corporation will find out about his heart condition, then he’ll lose his job to a younger man. I told him his secret is safe with me. I’m good at keeping my mouth shut. All orphans are because you need to to survive the System.
After a petulant pause, I stand. Jack throws me one of his half smiles. It’s a sad smile, really. You know the type where the mouth moves but the eyes don’t shine. I bet it was Jack who organised the chocolate pudding and fresh cream. It was an act of kindness that is rare in our Secular World and I’m sure Jack and I would have been friends if we’d met in different circumstances.
The man standing next to him is tall, with shiny black hair and unblemished skin. He’s wearing a blue suit, a pink shirt, and a dark-blue tie. His shirt has those cufflinks that hold the sleeves together and it is his duty to make sure everything is carried out to the letter of the law. Like I give a dog’s stink about that stuff any more, because the law isn’t much good or that honest. Corruption is the word they use around here. It was a word I’d never thought about much until I was arrested, but I think about it now — all the time.
The third man is bald and muscle-bound with a goatee beard that is tinged with grey. His eyes look too small for his head and it makes me want to laugh. He has a permanent scowl, and he’s wearing a white collarless shirt buttoned to the neck. The shirt is too tight and pinches at the front of his throat, but if I had eyes that small I probably wouldn’t be able to pick a shirt that fitted me either.
He’s my Executioner.
‘Are you Ned 5-7-9-0-1-2-3?’ the Court Official asks.
His back is arrow-straight and his head is held high in that way all Court Officials stand. He flips open his electronic notepad and taps the screen with an officious flourish. I remember my Judge tapped his notepad in the same way, but not as quickly as this man. He’s younger than my Judge and more interested in wanting to impress, so maybe that’s why he types quicker.
I nod that I am.
‘Please answer Yes or No.’
I don’t answer. Why should I? It’s a game all the Denounced play. I’m sure he’s going to ask me the question again, but he doesn’t fall for it. I smile back. All I have is my dignity and that’s the one thing they can never take from me.
‘You have been found guilty by a court of your peers and convicted of being a Denounced. You will be hanged by the neck until you are pronounced dead. Do you understand the implications of what is being said to you?’
How stupid is the guy? Of course I understand the implications — I’m going to die. I count to twenty in my head, still smiling, before I nod, knowing I’m supposed to answer yes, but I’m not going to unless he asks me again and even then he’ll have to wait.
‘Do you have anything else you want to say? Anything you would like to add to your records that we may have missed?’
I think for a second.
‘I’m not guilty.’
‘You said that in Court. This is not new information. I’m only interested in new information. Do you have anything new to add?’
I stare him out because I’m never speaking to this man again.
‘Then let us proceed,’ he says finally.
Jack steps forward and handcuffs my wrists with a plastic zip-tie. They say you get buried in them. It must be true because they are the same deep-purple colour as my Holding Centre Jumpsuit. Purple is the colour of the Denounced and I was made to wear it over a white t-shirt with white sneakers in Court before I was convicted. I thought that was unfair because you are innocent until proven guilty, and I said so to my lawyer. She said if I complained it would only look bad, so I didn’t, because you’re supposed to listen to lawyers even if they are corrupt. She was young and pretty and blonde, and always in a hurry. I heard an older boy say she looked hot and he’d like to do things to her, especially to her mouth. I thought she looked cold, despite being pretty, and I didn’t want to do anything to her but have her leave me alone. She said she hoped my trial would finish on the Friday, because she had a holiday booked on the Saturday and she didn’t want to cancel it. In the end, it was okay for her, because I got convicted on the Wednesday. She looked pleased and she told me she had done her best before she hurried off again. I found out later that once you’ve been accused of being a Denounced it’s almost impossible not to be found guilty. They call it the conveyor belt of death. The lucky few who have been cleared have gone on to become celebrities, making millions of digital credits. Someone gave me a book to read about a Survivor, but from what I could see the boy had a twin and the police had accused the wrong sibling, so he wasn’t cleared in the true sense. I was convicted on hearsay. I never saw the person and they never came to court. The prosecution read out a statement that said I denounced our State and wanted to live in the Non-Secular World. It meant the Law saw me as having anti-Secular beliefs and that I secretly hoped for a return of the Terrorist Wars. None of it was true. I never said the things they said and I don’t know why somebody made up those lies.
But they did and here I am, about to die.
The Court Official asks me to show him my right wrist. I twist my arm so he can see my luminous number. Everyone in the Secular World has a number embedded into their skin in the same spot. If the police find you without a number they can shoot you on sight. Mine is easy to remember. Add two to five and two to seven and you get the first three numbers. The last four are sequential from zero up.
In the Secular World you are known by your first name and number, and your number becomes the most important thing about you. You get digital credits added to it so you can buy the things you need. Your education and where you live and what you’ve done are all logged to it as well. You simply scan your number into Readers and you can travel or take a cab, buy a home, whatever. It all comes down to the number, but I’m never going to do any of those things.
‘Height?’ the Court Official asks.
I yawn then say, ‘One metre eighty-eight. I’m tall for my age,’ I add.
I’m not sure why I said that and I’m annoyed for giving something away about myself.
I shrug. I can see he has my weight marked as eight-two kilos. I’m closer to ninety but I’m not fat, I’m stocky. I always have been. The other Denounced say it’s a good thing I’m heavy. It means I’ll fall harder and my neck will break quickly, like they know what they are talking about because they’ve had a dry run.
There are some idiots here for sure and I’m looking at another one as the Court Official taps away on his notepad. I spot he has my hair colour listed wrong. He has ‘light brown’, but it’s what you’d call dirty blond. Does that mean they’ve made a mistake? My heart races as he stares at me, but then he changes the description and updates my eye colour from light blue to grey. He adds a few more comments that I can’t see before he finishes with another officious flourish, closing the cover with a snap.
I hate all Court Officials, especially this one, and if I wasn’t zip-tied, I’d punch him, just for a laugh.
‘There are four scheduled endings this morning. You are number two. It’s time to go. We don’t want anyone missing their weekend because of a Denounced, do we!’
Jack leads the way with my Executioner behind me and the Court Official behind him, I suppose, but I don’t turn around to check. We walk along a steel gantry that is sloping toward a security door. The pass-through points are all the same. Cubes that you enter with a choice of four exits if you include the one you’ve stepped through. Only one door ever opens at a time so you have no chance of escape. Not that there’s much chance of that anyway. I wait for one door to fully close as I think of my family name — Hunter.
I always thought it sounded kinda cool and it’s better than Ned 5-7-9-0-1-2-3. The Secular World lets you use your family name until you go to Second School at the age of ten. It’s there that you’re issued your Number, which is how you’re known from that point on, but like most things in my life I’ve been different. I was seven when I got my Number. My parents had died in a ferry accident, which my sister, Liz, survived. She is six years older than me so we’re not close. I was put into an orphanage, or a Community Home, as they call it, which is why I was issued my Number early. I’ve lived in six Community Homes before coming here. Liz could have become my prime-carer when she turned eighteen. I would have been twelve and the Secular World would have given us a home and digital credits for us to live and eat. She would have had her education paid for, along with loads of other benefits. But she refused and I don’t know why. I was told at the time she didn’t want the responsibility — something about being too immature despite her age. Liz was always mature for her years, so that was a lie, but as I’ve gotten older, I understand. It’s easier to survive when you only have to think about yourself. Liz didn’t come to my trial but she did send an email saying that if I was found guilty, then I deserved my punishment. I know why she wrote those words, because life can be tough, even for family members, if they are seen to be supporting a Denounced. They get labelled Doubters and end up living in allocated camps where the police watch them all the time.
We exit another cube and enter a long metal tube. I know where we are going and I block it by picturing what Liz looks like. I can’t remember her much any more. I think she had the same colour hair as me and was tall. My mother had the same colour hair too, but hers was wavy and Liz’s is straight. We both get our height from our dad. The Community Home’s Committee take all your family pictures from you when you enter the System. They say it helps you to come to terms with being on your own. If you want, you can have them back when you become an adult at eighteen. I asked if I could see them before my end. It was Jack who delivered the bad news that I couldn’t and it made me angry for a week. I wanted to hurt someone in revenge, but I didn’t, because I’m not that kind of person. I’ve learned that sometimes circumstances and what other people do to you, can make you something you’re not.
The tunnel starts to bend to the right and I see a set of steps at the end, which will lead into another holding area. I can hear the low hum of voices, I’m guessing this is going to be my final destination. My heart starts to pump like I’ve been on a sprint. My legs go weak and I tell myself: I’m Ned Hunter, I’m innocent of being a Denounced and I still have my dignity.
I say it again and again in my mind.
At the bottom of the stairs and to my left is a steel wall with an electronic sliding door in the centre. On the far wall is a long wooden bench with three teenagers sat down. The boy to the far left is small and thin with rounded shoulders and brown spiky hair who I saw in Court a few times. He’s cried so much he looks like he’s been stung by a swarm of bees. Next to him is a tall boy — not as tall as me, but not far off. He’s mixed-race with green eyes and a long twisted-afro. He looks strong like he’s lifted weights. He’s a good-looking fella and he’s staring at the floor in that nonchalant way we all do to show ‘em we don’t care. It’s another stupid game, because we do care really. Next to him is a girl with long blonde hair and light blue watery eyes, like I’ve never seen on anyone. She has sharp cheekbones and a pert nose all set on a muscular frame. She is beyond beautiful and it makes me forgot where I am. The next thing I know, I stumbling, trying to find my footing and it’s Jack who catches me by the shoulders and stops me falling on my face.
My Court Official laughs.
‘I’m not scared,’ I snap at Jack.
‘I know you’re not,’ Jack says with a reassuring nod and one of his smiles. ‘You’re one of the bravest boys I’ve ever met.’
I don’t reply because I don’t want to appear weak. I’m expecting Jack to walk me to the wooden bench to sit me next to the girl, but he doesn’t. Instead, he guides me toward the electronic door and I wait outside. Another guard pulls the boy with the swollen face by the forearm to his feet and marches him in front of me. Jack tells me to take a step back. I do, glancing behind me to see the mixed-race boy next, and the girl last. My Court Official tells me to look forward. I give it a ten count before I do as I’m told. I mean, what is he going to do to me if I don’t. Kill me! The mixed-race boy smirks. He knows the unwritten rules — I bet he’s an orphan, too. He has that look about him. I stare forward and the boy in front of me starts to wet his pants. I can see why we are stood on a grate with a drain beneath. It allows them to wash away the smell with ease.
A guard puts a mask on the boy’s face in a rough, hurried manner. Jack does the same to me, but he uses a gentle hand. This is it. My time in the Secular World is all but over. All that will be left of me is my record, which is kept in the Court Digital Files for two years. My Number will then be recycled to someone else at the age of ten, or younger, if they happen to be an orphan. I hope whoever gets 5-7-9-0-1-2-3 has more luck with it than I did. They say some Numbers are doomed and I never thought that about mine, but maybe it’s true after all?
I hear the door slide open and the boy in front of me step through. I can’t hear anything else after the door closes except my own breath, which is so much quicker than normal. The door opens and Jack whispers for me to step forward. I can feel Jack’s hand gripping my forearm as he guides me forward. His grip releases and I hear the door close behind me in the same moment the rough hands of the Executioner puts the rope around my neck. I’m not sure what I expected but the rope is smooth like warm silk. Perhaps it’s warm from the crying boy who went first. The Executioner tugs the rope tight and it makes me swallow. My legs start to shake and I feel tears bubble in my eyes. I scream in my head:
I’m not going to wet my pants.
I’m not going to wet my pants.
I’m not going to wet my pants.
You can watch Denounced being executed on a special TV Channel. The Secular Authorities think it’s a good thing that such events are broadcast to the mass population. It is supposed to deter people and to make them think about the consequences of their actions. It’s a shame the people who watch the channel don’t know about the corruption.
Or maybe they do and they don’t care?
‘Good riddance to scum,’ the Executioner laughs in my ear.
I don’t care what he says, I’ve had much worse said to me.
I hear an electronic snap.
Then I’m falling through the air.
I smash into the floor and I hit my head on something metal. Pain bounces through my skull and I can’t work out what’s happened other than the noose is chokingly tight and the rope’s length is coiled across my body. I’m stunned that I’m not dead or, I don’t think I am, and it’s the same old story. Nothing works as it should at the Holding Centre, and now this. A boy told me once they occasionally make an example of a Denounced for the TV. It’s against the law but nobody cares and they do it for the Airtime Ratings, and it works. Now I’m going to have to relive my execution because I dared to show dignity. Next time, I’ll pee my pants to get this over and done with, and I’ll have the dignity of knowing it was fake fear and not real, so I still win.
I reach for my mask when hands grab my upper arms and drag me across the floor, as someone loosens the rope and slips it from my neck. My mask is yanked from my face, but, before I have time to focus, a hood is jammed over my head. What little light seeped through the edges of my mask is completely gone and the blackness and the hands and the sudden movement fill me with a new kind of fear.
‘Stay quiet or I’ll strangle you myself,’ a man’s voice says. ‘Do you understand?’
I nod that I do.
‘Stand,’ he commands.
I try, but really I’m pulled to my feet and marched at speed into a slow jog. I’m fighting to stay calm and I’m more panicked now than when I first saw my Executioner. Voices and the sounds of running feet flood my ears. Whatever is happening to me is happening to others. I'm pulled to a halt and it jars my knees. I recognise the sound of the security-cube doors opening and closing. It’s like air being sucked from a room. I’m turned a half circle and forced into another jog out of the cube. Hands are on my arms, guiding me this way and then that. My breath is hot inside the hood and I continue to struggle to get my thoughts straight through the imposed urgency. Somebody kicks my feet from under me. I yelp out in pain as I fall backwards, but more hands grab to cushion my fall as I’m simultaneously lifted and lowered into a long box. The hood is snatched from my head and the lid of the box is snapped into place before I have chance to see who these men are.
I’m a snug fit and there are dozens of tiny holes in the top half, which allows me to breathe – that has to be a good sign for what is coming, right? My box is lifted and slid across a metal floor. I hear a door close and what small shafts of light I could see disappear. People are crying around me. I try to listen to see if one of the criers is the boy with the swollen face who was first in line. I can’t tell, but I hope his rope snapped too and he’s in this truck, which has started to move. I wonder if I’m being rescued. The thought gives me too much hope so I block it and there’s nothing else I can do but try and relax, which is harder than it sounds. There’s enough room for me to turn on my sides and there’s even a foam block for my head that is more comfortable than the pillow in my cell. I settle in as best I can and I’m not worried any more just flat-out exhausted.
It’s the vehicle stopping that wakes me. I tense. The back doors of the truck are opened and I hear boxes being dragged across the metal floor. I count seven before the box I’m in is scraped forward and dumped on the ground in a loud thud that makes my head shoot up and hit the top of the lid. I count another twenty boxes being unloaded before I’m finally released. Night blinks back at me, and I glimpse a burnt-out tree and more boxes from a second truck before another hood is rammed over my head.
‘Stand,’ a man snaps.
It’s the same voice who rescued me, although I’m not so sure about the rescued part any more. I’m helped to my feet and I go dizzy for a moment as I’m guided out of my box and walked a few paces and told to stand still. The air is warm and strokes at my skin and I’m sure I can smell the sea. All I can see is my white sneakers if I stare hard down, along with the tarmac road. We are told to jog on the spot to get our circulation moving. I do as I’m told, but I’m more focused on the sound of ‘other’ running feet. I counted twenty-seven boxes, twenty-eight, if you include mine, but it sounds a lot more than twenty-eight of us jogging.
It sounds like fifty, a hundred, but it can’t be, can it?
We’re handed a drink along with a food bar.
‘Nobody lifts their hoods if they want to live,’ the voice commands.
These people don’t sound like Court Officials and something is telling me they are not going to take any defiant behaviour from someone like me so I feed the straw under my hood and take a long drink of sweet lukewarm lemonade. I follow it with a bite of the food bar. I’ve eaten these at the Holding Centre and they’re made of nuts and dates and sticky black syrup. They taste like dried straw but they fill you up and give you energy, and I haven’t eaten since yesterday, which suddenly makes dried straw a delicious meal.
After I finish my snack, my empty bottle is taken from me and I’m guided back to my box. As I’m lifted into the truck, my eyelids go heavy and there’s this feeling like a weight has been laid across my chest. The food or drink must have had something in them to make me sleep. I fight the tiredness, but I can’t keep it up and the floating drowsiness makes me think of something I haven’t thought about for years.
How different would my life have been had both my parents lived?