A century ago, the War of Extinction devastated the planet and claimed the lives of over half the Earth’s population. In the aftermath, two of the survivors saw an opportunity to create a paradise, free of the mistakes of the Old World. They founded a settlement, based on an ideology of ‘Community Owned, Community Maintained, Community First’. My hometown of Hamlet. Countless other settlements were also established in the New World over the years, but Hamlet has remained one of the oldest and largest in existence.
As a child, our town principles and the rules we abided by to keep them firmly in place, meant nothing to me. I just did as my parents said. So, from Monday to Thursday, I attended academic and physical wellness classes at school. On Friday mornings, we performed various civic duties, assigned by our teachers, to aid in the maintenance of our town. On Friday afternoons, they arranged for us to visit The Retreats, which took excellent care of our elderly and our unwell. Weekends were usually taken up with a combination of community social events and family time, which my parents, my younger brother and I often spent in Hamlet’s beautiful countryside.
It wasn’t until I entered my teens that I began to wonder about the other New World settlements. What were they like? Were they really so different to Hamlet? Were they… better? My subsequent endeavours to find answers to these questions proved fruitless, but this didn’t thwart my interest. Instead, my unresolved queries only expanded and became more irksome, as I got older.
One summer evening, a week after my eighteenth birthday, my twenty year-old best friend burst into my bedroom.
“Right! Now that you’ve come of age, we need to find you a life-partner!” Ash announced.
“Whatever.” I replied moodily.
“Whatever? You don’t want the Grand Office matching you for marriage with some random stranger, do you?” I shrugged, nonchalantly. “Yeah… you’re not bothered now… But, when you’re twenty-one and spouse-less, you will be! Anyway… have you decided on your trade yet?”
“I haven’t given it much thought.” I replied, not wanting to discuss it. I’d actually spent weeks agonising over whether to become an Apothecary Assistant like my dad, or follow my mum into Street Maintenance. Neither option appealed, but our town rules obligated me to choose one.
“Well, you’d better start! Or the Grand Office will decide for you.” Ash warned.
A sudden swell of anger surged through me and I blurted out, “Why can’t we just be free to do what we want to do?”
“Well, you can always apply to them for a Job Assignment Transfer, if you really don’t want to go into your family trades…” Ash suggested conciliatorily.
“It’s not just that!” I snapped. “It’s everything!” And there it was. I had been feeling inexplicably restless and frustrated in the months leading up to my eighteenth birthday and now I knew why. My coming of age meant I would have to start obeying and fulfilling more societal obligations. Some of which I didn’t necessarily agree with.
“’Everything’ like what?” Ash asked.
“Like…” I paused and thought for a moment. “What if I don’t want to get married when I’m twenty-one? What if I decide not to get married at all? Or, what if I want three kids, not just two?”
“You know none of that’s allowed!” Ash replied. “Look, I know it’s all a bit much. You turn eighteen and all of a sudden, our society expects you to make these huge life-changing decisions. But, that’s the way it is, so… just accept it.”
“But, why should we have to ‘just accept it’?” I persisted. “Why do our whole lives have to be dictated to us? They’ve got rules for everything! You must spend four hours a week in the gym, you must visit The Retreats bi-monthly, your house must be painted the standard sky-blue…” Ash smiled.
“So, you’ve received your Duty Logbook and Membership Directory then!” I rolled my eyes. “Look, your teachers told you what the Old World was like before the War of Extinction, right? Overpopulation… those gun things… inequality… deprivation…“
“Yeah… so?” I replied.
“Would you want to live in a place like that?”
“Exactly!” Ash exclaimed. “We don’t have to worry about any of those Old World problems here. Why? Because our Founders put specific rules in place to prevent them. We just need to follow those rules, so it stays that way.”
“Yeah, but… What if there’s a settlement beyond our town walls – one that’s just like Hamlet – but where you can make your own choices?” I ventured.
“There’s no such place!” Ash stated, with utter conviction. “If you want paradise, you have to follow its rules. That’s just how it works.” This surprised me.
“But, how could you know that for sure? You’ve never even been to the outside!”
“You don’t always have to bite the fruit to see the worm.” Ash said cryptically. “Listen… I can’t tell you how I know, but… Just trust me on this. And you need to stop all this talk. If the Grand Office even thinks you’re expressing ideas that could disrupt the harmony of our town, they’ll expel you. They’ve done it before.”
“To who?” I asked, almost speechless at these revelations.
“It doesn’t matter. But, if do they expel you… or even if you leave of your own free will… once you go, you can never come back.” Ash put a hand on my shoulder. “Is that what you want? Are our rules so unacceptable that you would be willing to give up the peace and security of Hamlet – and abandon your family and friends – in the vague hope of finding something better out there?”
An original short story by Donna Anderson