Play by the rules, and nobody gets hurt. Play by the rules, and nobody gets hurt. The hated mantra echoed through my mind as I stared at my reflection in the cracked mirror. The girl that looked back at me was nothing out of the ordinary. My dark hair hung halfway down my back, and my blue eyes were hidden behind brown contacts, the brown colour marking me out as an agric citizen. I had turned sixteen two months ago, making me a fully-fledged adult in the eyes of the KPU. I also looked small for my age, making myself able to pass for a citizen of a younger year, such as the fourteens, or sometimes even the twelves. Years of malnourishment had taken a toll on my body, and the standard overalls hung loosely from my skinny frame, despite the alternations my mother was trying to make to the uniform.
"You're just going to have to manage," she said with a sigh.
"Take the pail, and go draw some water. You're going to have to clean up before you leave."
As I made my way towards the region square, pail in hand, I felt an eerie silence hanging over the community. Like every year on this day, everybody was silent. Almost as if offering condolences to the families of the sixteens. Fifty years ago, the KPU introduced a new piece of technology- a machine that could spit out the encoded DNA of any person, just from a drop of their blood. Two years later, Governor White made it mandatory for all sixteens to take. He flung explanations around like dish towels. Population control. Lack of resources. A way to catch traitors. Unfortunately, the public fell for it. Since then, the test became the first step to pass after you turned sixteen. Of course, the KPU assured us that this test only exposed the traitors and the unworthy. As long as we played by the rules, we would be fine. This calmed the population down quite a bit. Everybody in the Ridge was as loyal as the next. But I played by a completely different set of rules.
My family held a secret. We were members of the Liberali Bond, more commonly known as the Liberals. This was the underground resistance of the Ridge. A secretive society where justice was fought for. Years ago, my father had been the leader of the Liberals, but when the KPU had raided one of their secret meetings, killing my father and five other members, my older brother Cohen took over at only seventeen years of age. Because my family was closely related to the Liberals, all my life, I was surrounded by talks of rebellion. In a world where individual thinking was not permitted, I grew up in a family that openly encouraged me to speak for myself. But the price for free speech was high. My family lived in one of the poorest sections of the Ridge to avoid any attention. Running water and electricity was unheard of in our housing sector. It was hard, listening to the propaganda spewing from the mouths of dedicated Ridge citizens, but over time, I learned how to keep my mouth shut, and emotions locked away. But with a brother who was the head of the underground resistance and a test designed to weed out the traitors of society, it was difficult to keep my identity hidden.
To my disappointment, I was not the first one in the square. Like any other ordinary day, the area was filled with chatters. Vendors with their booths lined the square, bargaining loudly with citizens. Abandoning my orders to draw water, I scanned the line of booths for Salle- an old woman that our family had gotten close with over the years. Salle had no remaining family in the Ridge, so my mother made it our duty to make sure the old woman had everything she needed. I spotted her at the end of the line, her head bowed over her newest piece of work. Throwing a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure that I blended in, I made my way over to her booth.
"Salle, how are you doing?" A smile lit up the old woman's face.
"Little bird. Just the girl I wanted to see."
Salle insisted on calling me 'Little bird.' When I was younger, I used to sing, copying the tunes that the birds carried. Of course, this habit was broken quickly when I received a personal visit from a KPU guard warning me to stop. Music was dangerous; it encouraged rebellion. When Salle heard my voice, she instantly said that I reminded her of a bird. More specifically, a nightingale.
She reached behind her stand and pulled out a simple silver chain, with a large charm hung in the middle.
"For you," she placed it over my palm. I accepted the necklace and turned the charm over in my hand. It was a nightingale. The details were intricately designed, perfectly portraying the small bird. The charm looked oddly familiar, but I could not exactly place where I had seen it before.
"Oh, Salle. This is lovely. I couldn't possibly take it from you," I tried to push the charm back at the old woman, but she flatly refused.
"Little bird, this is my gift to you. Consider it your sixteenth birthday present." The old woman placed her hand on top of mine and winked. I knew I couldn't refuse it.
"Thank you, Salle. It really is a lovely necklace." She gave me another nod, then turned back to her work.
The square was packed with people of all ages, lining up to collect their rations for the day. I made my way into one of the growing lines. A voice from the right drew my attention.
"Soren! I can't believe you're early today. Shouldn't you be sleeping in on a weekend?" It was my only friend, Tess. Lay low. Don't draw attention to yourself. The first rule of the Liberali Bond. Like me, Tess was dressed in the agric overalls, although hers fit much better than mine. Her hair was tied back with a ribbon pronouncing her brown eyes, and her mouth lifted up in a smile as she awaited my reply.
"Of course not." I dropped my voice to a whisper,
"How's the family?" I asked quietly.
Her bright smile faltered.
"Same as usual. My mother has been extremely anxious lately. With testing day and memories of Demi and all."
Like me, Tess was fatherless. Demi was Tess' older sister. She was my brother's very first love interest and was one of the six that were murdered by the KPU when they raided the meeting. Demi was like an older sister to me. When she, along with my father, was killed, it affected all of us greatly. But Tess' mother had reacted in the worst similar manner, neglecting the needs of her family for a span of many months, lost in her own depression.
"Please scan your chip," the monotone robotic voice announced from the machine. I rolled up my sleeve and placed my left forearm under the blinking scanner on the machine. After a moment's pause, the machine spoke again,
"The Caversa family. Approved. Please collect your rations behind the gate. Next in line, please scan your chip."
I collected the meagre rations from a burly guard dressed head to toe in the white KPU uniform. The KPU was our government. They stood for Keepers of Peace United and were headed by the leader of the Ridge, Governor White. Loved by many, but known all over for their brutal and merciless methods of ruling.
A loud crack diverted my attention. To my right, two guards stood over the dead body of a young boy, still hugging a loaf of bread to his chest. One of the guards had a self-satisfied smirk pasted on his face, his shiny black gun still pointed at the boy's head. Nausea welled up in my stomach as I watched the puddle of blood around his head spread over the rough concrete. I didn't recognize the boy, but what did it matter? Tomorrow, it could be me that lay dead at the feet of the guards. Someone else had just lost a son, a brother, a friend. As Tess appeared by my side, one of the guards wrestled the loaf from the boy's hands and delivered a hard kick to his side, pushing his limp body across the ground.
"Don't watch," Tess instructed, grabbing my arm to turn me away from the scene. This was another reason why Tess was a good friend. She knew how to survive. The golden rule for survival in the Ridge was simple: Don't draw attention to yourself. Keep your head down, and your opinions to yourself. Looking away from the boy, I allowed Tess to lead me in the opposite direction from the scene, the gunshot still echoing in the square.
Thank you for reading Chapter 1 of Nightingale! I hope you enjoyed it and feel free to add any comments/suggestions. :)