My last moment of freedom exists in the sliver of time just before the sun sets and the sirens sound for curfew. I grip my satchel, swinging it over my shoulder as I look out across the Celian City, the light from the Founding Towers radiating across the Inside, almost touching the Outer Sector.
I have to turn around before the gates close, but I can’t stop staring at it. This close, I can almost imagine what it would be like to live there, surrounded by so much light and beauty. I reach back into my mind for memories of before, when that was home, but as the image I’m seeking wells up in my mind, the final siren goes off in the distance and I am dragged back to reality.
The Wall behind me signifies the beginning and the end of Oasis, the utopian society we exist inside. It comprises the three rings of Oasis: the Outer Sector, the Inner Sector and the Celian City. But the Celian City is the only real paradise we have left. Out here, in the cold and dark of the Outer Sector, so far from the light of the City, I struggle to see the perfection.
But I know why I’m here. And that is why, no matter how much I want to, I can never enter the Celian City, never step foot inside its gates. At least, not the way I am now.
Hundreds of years ago, before Oasis was built, the Virus crept up inside us. While science leapt forward, curing the diseases that had plagued the old world for so long, something more sinister was waiting for its moment to strike.
When it finally did, we were defenceless.
Within months the Virus had dwindled the population, humanity teetering on the brink of extinction. Just as we thought all hope was lost, Oasis built the Peace Wall, a thirty-metre high circle of steel and stone around one of the largest cities in the old world, and the last safe haven for the Pure, those as yet unaffected by the Virus. The Wall kept the Pure safe long enough to let the Virus die out, but by then the world outside Oasis had burned itself to the ground, leaving only a wasteland behind. Suddenly Oasis was all humanity had left.
I let myself slide down the pile of debris I’ve perched on until I land on solid ground, steadying my feet underneath me as I begin my trek back to the Dorms. As I walk, I run my fingers along the Sector Wall that separates the Outer Sector from the Inner Sector and the Celian City, feeling the rough concrete tear at my fingertips. The pain holds me down, prevents these stories from drowning me as I attempt to keep moving forward, back to the Dorms.
For a hundred years after the genesis of Oasis, everything was perfect. The new world that Oasis had founded was everything everyone had dreamed of. But as Oasis developed, a new problem was already brewing, ready to take away everything Oasis had worked for. Oasis discovered the X gene, a genetic trait with the capability of reactivating the Virus. Fear bred panic, and panic bred chaos as the population tried to cope with the concept of the Virus’s return, this time within the Wall.
Every citizen was tested, and over half the population tested positive for the X gene, which meant over half the population were ticking time-bombs, just waiting to go off and kill everyone in the process.
The X gene is dormant, a quiet, seemingly innocent trait that could go a lifetime without the appearance of any symptoms. But it only takes one person. One single person for the Virus to manifest itself inside, and the entire population would be wiped out in a matter of weeks.
Oasis’s only option was segregation, to build a wall between those with the gene and those without it; between those who were Pure, and those who were not.
I am one of the Dormants, the infected people, those who threaten to destroy society simply by being alive. We wait in fear for symptoms to appear, a sign that the Virus has been resurrected. Paranoia controls our every movement, terrified of ourselves, terrified of each other, terrified of the blood in our veins. This Wall under my fingertips is the only thing keeping the Pure safe from people like me.
Oasis found it difficult to govern us from across the Sector Wall, so the Outer Sector began to crumble as the Inner Sector flourished. We became more and more distant from the heart of Oasis as fear of contagion grew, until all we knew of the Inside was the light of the Celian City shining across us.
I pull away from the Wall, snapping back to the present as I try to haul myself over another pile of scrap metal discarded by the factory on this street. I have to pick up my pace if I’m going to get back in time. There are few street lamps left along the streets of the Outside, most of them having shorted out years ago, and it’s hard to keep my footing as I stumble over piles of rubble towards the Dorms.
Oasis is searching for the Cure. A way to suppress the X gene, to ensure the Virus never takes root, to ensure there will never be another contagion. They want to save us, but for now, while we pose such a threat to our society, we have to be segregated from the Pure, for their good and for our own.
I see the Dorms coming into view ahead of me and I break into a sprint. The sirens have stopped and I’m only metres from the gates as I see them start to close. The gravel beneath my worn boots crunches as I push myself forward. My heart is thumping crazily as I slip through the opening, just before the steel gates clang shut behind me.
‘1712,’ an Officer growls, and I freeze. I turn around slowly, afraid that if I move too fast he will see me as a threat.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say quietly, ducking my head. My heart rate should be slowing down, but it’s speeding up.
He catches my upper arm in a vice-grip and I try not to flinch as he drags me towards the entrance to the Dorms.
‘Move it, Dormant,’ he grunts, giving me one last push towards the door.
I catch myself on the side of the building just before my head hits the concrete, and I scramble back to the door, ducking inside before he has a chance to change his mind.
The Dormants dream of the day that we’ll be cured. The day that we finally get to live the life citizens of Oasis are supposed to live. But there are some Pure who think differently. There are some who believe we drain Oasis’s resources while supplying them only with the limited services we can without danger of contagion. No one’s really sure how the Virus is passed on, which leaves very little for us to contribute, and the Pures’ resentment of the Dormants grows every day.
I hear the lock sliding shut in the door behind me, and the panic that always sets in at night comes in a tidal wave. I don’t like small spaces, and I don’t like being locked up, especially in here, but I know that it’s worse outside the Dorm gates.
There are too many Dormants to be monitored, so their deaths aren’t tracked the way the Pures’ are and bodies pile up in the Outer Sector like flies on a summer day. I’ve known girls who refused to return at night, and the next day I’d have to walk by their bodies on my way to work.
Most children in the Outer Sector are parentless, either having left their families behind in the Inner Sector when they were removed from the Pure population, or orphaned from hard living. With no one to protect them, kids are quickly assimilated into gangs of bandits, robbing and stealing their way to survival, and too regularly the attacks end with blood pooling on the pavement.
We’re left with three options: stay inside the Dorms, join a gang, or death.
I start walking towards the stairs, the hallway empty and quiet as I creep past closed doors, praying I won’t meet anyone on the way. But everyone seems to be in bed already. The entire building is silent, and it makes my skin crawl.
Something must have happened today if they’re this quiet. Sometimes, when we get too out of hand, the patrolling Officers have to take action. A vicious fight broke out between some girls six months ago, so bad the Officers had to step in, and the resulting chaos ended with four girls dead and six others severely injured. Now, if we get too out of hand, if the Officers get so much as irritated, silence reigns across the entire building.
As I make my slow ascent up the stairs, I almost trip over a girl asleep on the staircase. The power’s been shut off and it’s so dark in here that I didn’t see her until my boot knocked into her knee.
She looks about thirteen or fourteen, so she must have transferred in from another Dorm. The really new ones are always the same, seven years old, confused, tear-stained, and completely unequipped to deal with the unspoken rules of the Dorms.
But this girl is as good as new. Sometimes the new girls think that it’s safer out here, away from the others. But it’s not. Some of the more malicious girls go hunting for stragglers at night, and being caught by them once means being on their hit-list forever.
I stop in front of the girl. I wonder if I should wake her, tell her how dangerous it is to be out here. Maybe I could tell her to go back in the communal sleeping area, to curl up in some corner and pretend to be invisible, tell her that it’s the only way she’s going to last six months in this place.
But I can’t. I have to take my own advice and keep my head down. And besides, she should know better than to leave herself vulnerable, curled up out in the open like this.
I move on, pushing up the last flight of stairs to the sleeping quarters. It’s overflowing, as usual. The Dorms weren’t built for this many people, because Oasis didn’t think there were ever going to be this many Dormants. They could never have foreseen how long it would take to find the Cure.
As I trip over outstretched feet and arms and find the little space on the floor in the corner I’ve claimed, my mind returns, as it always does, to the Cure.
I imagine what it would be like to take it, to finally be safe from my own body, to be Pure. What would happen if I was cured? Would I be taken back to the Inner Sector? Would I see my parents again? Would the Outer Sector be rebuilt, the slums replaced with houses, the crematoriums with hospitals?
Could I live a normal life again?
I lie down with my back to the wall, my eyes nervously scanning the room, watching the other girls stir in their sleep, bewitched by the images behind their eyes.
Normal life. I’m not sure I remember what that means anymore. It’s been ten years since I’ve had anything remotely normal. Ten years since I was diagnosed as a Dormant. Ten years since my parents abandoned me here, seven years old, trembling with fear.
Fear is an understatement. Terror doesn’t even begin to explain the way my heart raced and my gut twisted inside of me when I had to pull on the rough grey uniform of the Dormants and find a way to live this half-life. That first week was the worst. I was that girl asleep on the stairs, cowering in a corner in the hopes of being left alone. But I wasn’t left alone.
I got into my first fight three days after arriving, when a girl with dark hair and blotchy skin tried to steal my food. I pushed her, knocking her to the ground. When I saw her move to get up, before I knew what I was doing, I smashed my boot into her face, the crunch of cartilage running up my spine, freezing my blood.
And when she lay there, coughing and spluttering around the blood pouring into her mouth, I didn’t say anything.
No one touched me after that. No one tried to talk to me, and no one tried to steal from me. I did what I had to do to keep myself alive, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I keep my head down, I trust no one, and I wait.
Wait for the Cure, and for the day I can get out of this hell-hole.