CID4+ Speculative Fiction Short Story — BEYOND THE BARRIER

By Dai Zongxin (4C), Hong Yuqi (4C), Lim Emma Patricia (4J)

Photo credits:

Chapter 1

Her footfalls weren’t soft, the sweet crunch of grass under her feet satisfying. Scarlett loved venturing to the outskirts of Salvadore, the quiet foliage made up of moss and trees a refuge from the hectic life back in the city. Strolling around the abandoned area, she noticed a tall, dark building standing in the distance. Surprised with her find, she headed towards the gloomy structure, curious about what discoveries await her. As she took cautious steps into this abandoned building, she saw walls blanketed in thick mosses, the paint barely clinging onto the scarred walls, dust and debris swirling as a gust of wind blew. Sunlight poured down, illuminating the unlit corridors, Scarlett lifted her head to see the roof of this dilapidated building half gone.

Deciding to check out the ragged building, she followed the spiral staircase to the second storey. It was about the same as the first floor, run-down, dingy walls, almost a carbon copy of destruction. Unknowingly, Scarlett found herself drawn towards a dim hallway at the very end, light peeping scarcely from a door ajar. Her eyes sparkled with wonder, tentatively taking a step towards the mysterious room behind the door. Creaky hinges shrieked in misuse, Scarlett winced internally at the sound, stepping into a room of white sheets draped on every end.

Dust danced in the air, the musty smell of old parchment sifting through the air. She took glances at the numerous white sheets, cloth pooling around her every step into the room, the sheer white cascading like a waterfall from every item. Not far from the nearby window, Scarlett cautiously reached out to what seemed like a shelf, and pulled the sheets off. Slanting ever so slightly forward, the book-filled wooden shelf slowly loomed over Scarlett. Alarmed, Scarlett swiftly took a couple of steps back, as she watched the aged shelf topple in front of her, sending a cloud of dust flying right into her face. Eyes watering, she coughed vigorously, fanning the dust that was blocking her view. A faded orange notebook that fell before her feet caught her eye; it was not large, not too thick, and the pages were tattered and yellowish-brown. She picked it up, flipped it open, and started reading.

“ ‘Project Infinity’, led by Karl Heinsworth...” These were the few words that started everything.

Chapter 2

“Scarlett passed away.”

Hazel dropped her pen.

“What? Mom, say that again?” Disbelief welled up in her gut, punching her in the stomach. Hazel desperately wished that she had misheard her mother. No way would Scarlett be dead, she was perfectly fine just a week ago, with that familiar smile, that enthusiastic spirit. “...How?” Hazel questioned in a trembling voice.

“The police found her dead. Just yesterday. She committed suicide.”

Everything stopped. Hazel suddenly felt like she could not breathe, tears pooling in her eyes. How could that have happened? Scarlett was always cheerful, she could never have done that to herself.

Three days later, a funeral came to pass, to mourn Scarlett, Hazel’s best friend. Hazel’s body felt rigid and cold throughout the event, sorrow suffocating her every second. Her cold and empty eyes were fixated on the coffin, wishing so desperately that Scarlett would spring back to life.

She brought her hand to her chest, trying to smoothen out her emotions as she leaned on the wall beside her. Tears blurring her vision, Hazel saw a familiar figure walking towards her amidst the mass of black silhouettes. “Hey Hazel, you alright?” Christopher, her childhood friend, softly whispered to her, gently thumbing away her tears. Hazel let out a shaky sigh and shook her head before leaning into Chris’s embrace, fingers gripping his blazer as she sobbed pitifully. As the funeral proceeded, it became more and more unbearable for her to stay. Deciding that she needed some time alone, Hazel pulled away from Chris, sniffling as she mumbled “Thanks for being here.” Eyes filled with gratefulness, she stood up slowly, stretching her arms and legs to relieve the soreness in her body before heading off.

Unknowingly, she found herself walking towards Scarlett’s place. Her feet with a mind of their own, brought her to where she knew she would find the most comfort. The familiar brick roof started to dominate Hazel’s vision, and she slowly came to a halt. Breathing deeply, she reminded herself to stay calm as the sense of nostalgia grew. Picking up the spare key that Scarlett had always left under the potted plant, she unlocked the back door. Scarlett’s bedroom door was made from an old olive tree, the deep etches and groove of natural wood smooth on Hazel’s palm as she felt the door. Gently pushing open the door, memories of Scarlett were flashing in her mind, a forlorn smile stretched across her lips. She slowly walked around the bedroom, reminiscing the happy times, and came across Scarlett’s bookshelf. Her foot lightly tread on something poking out from underneath the bookshelf, so she abruptly came to a stop, looking down to examine what she stepped on. A faded orange notebook lain before her feet. Picking it up, Hazel flipped it open.

Chapter 3

“ ‘Project Infinity’, led by Karl Heinsworth...” Hazel scanned through the first page until a knock on the door interrupted her thoughts.

Startled, she responded, “Who’s there?”

“Hazel, it's me.” The door opened, and Hazel met Chris’ shining orbs, finding a sense of security as she stared into them. “Hey you alright? I knew you’d be here and was worried when you left.” Chris’ eyes trailed down and stopped at the notebook in Hazel’s hands.

“What’s that?”

With a small smile, Hazel said, “It’s Scarlett’s and seemed interesting, wanna read with me?”

“Sure.” Chris came over and started reading.

Sitting down side by side, Hazel’s head resting on Chris’s shoulder, they began taking in the information together. Hazel started, “Year 2059, 18 April. There was a latest discovery by Doctor James Keith about a possible new energy source in Sweden. It is said to be able to generate a tremendous amount of electricity in an hour, enough to power the Times Square for a few days!”

“Wow, that’s some crazy stuff,” Chris uttered, before continuing. “Year 2059, 23 April. The energy source has been confirmed. Scientists are flying over to conduct the experiments to extract the energy source from its ore. Miners have been contracted to dig as much of the source as possible and it seems like the energy source is nuclear due to detection of uranium atoms. Year 2059, 25 June. First batch of uranium has arrived at the lab. What a beauty. The council is planning to start pre-experiment preparations tomorrow after the box of uranium has been thoroughly examined. Year 2059, 26 June. We tried the fission extraction method on the uranium. Due to atmospheric molecules, the process was unable to take place smoothly and the uranium specimen disintegrated. We didn't expect this to be easy, and there's a long way to go before we can figure how to extract the nuclear power efficiently.”

Pausing to process the newly gained information, Hazel roughly flipped through the rest of the book in an attempt to get a better gauge of this document. Bits of yellow paper that were oddly sticking out caught her sight, as if the pages were torn away. “Hmm, why did Scarlett keep something like this? Was she interested in chemistry or something?” Chris chuckled as he took the book over and examined the covers once more.

Hazel remained silent. Something about the notebook was bugging her, the contents and records. Her brows were furrowed as she contemplated the newfound knowledge.

“Hazel? You alright?” Chris asked concernedly, reaching around to hug her. He knew Scarlett’s passing was a heavy blow on Hazel’s emotional well-being, so he wanted to be there for her. His efforts were rewarded with a small smile, small but there. “Yeah, thanks for being here Chris. I know it’s hard on you too.”

He huffed, “Hey, I’ll always be here for you. Got that?” Hazel relished in the comfort of Chris and leaned against his chest, enjoying being held by a loved one. After a few moments of silence, Chris whispered, “Wanna talk about it?” Hazel shifted her head on his shoulder and replied, “I don’t know. I just feel empty. You’re helping though.” Laying down to make themselves more comfortable, Chris’ hand naturally went to her hair, his fingers combing through the strands as he lulled her to sleep. “Rest. It’ll be better after you wake up.”

Chapter 4

A warm bright light shone through the window, gently falling onto Hazel’s delicate face. She opened her drowsy eyes to see the sunlight fall through the gaps between the window shades. As she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, she pushed herself up to a sitting position, staring blankly into space. After a few moments, she looked around and noticed the empty left side of the bed, as she softly called out, “Chris? You there?”

No one responded and she shrugged her shoulders, thinking that Chris probably had something to attend to and left first. Lazily, she started to feel around and searched for the distinct orange notebook, as she cursed her “wonderful” memory. As she lethargically groped around, her hands swept across a leather backing by the bedside table. Remembering earlier events, Hazel’s curiosity was once again piqued. She flipped open to where she had left off in the book, hesitating as she pondered if she should wait for Chris and read it together, or quench her curiosity first.

Deciding on the latter, her hands traced the words, as she read aloud. “Year 2060, 7 January. The final experiment will take place three days later. Finally, after hundreds of failed attempts, 104 to be exact, we have finally researched a method to extract the nuclear power and store it safely. The final experiment would allow us to make use of our method to extract huge amounts of nuclear power. Our country would not have to worry about the lack of power for a good 10 years by then! Year 2060 9 January. We are going into the final stage of preparations for the experiment. The higher-ups have given us full support and believed that if successful, our results could change the world. The Capitol wants to keep the experiment top secret so we aren’t allowed to share it with anyone. If we do, it’s either life time imprisonment or death. I’ll just pen down how excited I am to see this miracle happen in this diary.”

At that moment, Hazel reread that sentence with wide eyes. “If we do, it’s either life time imprisonment or death.” Scrunching up her nose at the thought of how such a simple thing can lead to such serious consequences, she felt shock and disbelief plaguing her mind. Why was this experiment carried out so secretly? Did they have something to hide? Why did they need to take such extreme measures to ensure that word does not go around? One by one, these questions popped up in her head, yet they remained unanswered. As she contemplated the questions, her gut feeling told her that something was off, but what? Glancing over Scarlett’s bedside table once more, Hazel noticed a thin stack of papers sitting on it, reaching over to grab it.

Just when she was intrigued, she heard the bedroom door open. Hazel got up from the bed and was greeted by Scarlett’s parents, her aunt and uncle. Not expecting to see Hazel here, the Sanders paused for a moment as they met Hazel’s eyes. “Hey Hazel, here you are.” Exhaustion evident in Mrs Sanders’ voice, she stepped aside, revealing two stern looking men in suits following behind. “These are Capitol officials. Adam and Noah. They came to the funeral and requested to collect Scarlett’s belongings for further investigation.”

Raising an eyebrow, Hazel questioned, “Investigation?”

Mr Sanders shrugged at her as he replied, “Not really sure. They said it's something about Scarlett’s cause of death. Apparently it was unnatural.”

It was strange for the government to be interested in Scarlett’s death, and even more so that they had sent officials to collect Scarlett’s belongings, but Hazel still let Adam and Noah in. The diary laid closed on the white bedsheets, its faded orange colour standing out, immediately catching one’s eye. Noah stepped into the room, like a predator stepping into a prey’s region, surveying the room with an analytical gaze while Adam held large cardboard boxes in his hands. He started shoving things in randomly, every object in sight went into the box. Clothes were haphazardly chucked in, Scarlett’s favourite pair of converse weren’t spared either. But as they turned to tear down the old polaroids of Hazel and Scarlett on the walls, Hazel could no longer stay still.

“Woah woah woah! Why are you guys collecting these pictures?” she hissed at them, a defensive glint in her eyes whilst she attempted to snatch back those precious polaroids. The two men shared a look, not acknowledging the hot-headed brunette, and continued to rip off the photos. “Hey! I’m talking to you barbarians! How will these photos help with the investigation at all? Give them back!” Hazel now grabbed onto Noah, shaking his arm to make him let go of the box of Scarlett’s belongings but it only felt like a pinch to the sturdy man.

Having heard the commotion, the Sanders sighed and tried to pull Hazel away from Noah. “Hazel dear, let them go. They need those to investigate her death.” Unquelled by their words, Hazel continued to reach for the box holding cherished memories of her best friend, feeling hot tears threatening to burst from her eyes. No way was she going to let these people take anymore of Scarlett away from her.

“Hazel? What’s going on here?” Chris’ voice suddenly echoed down the hallway, his eyes gleaming with confusion as he noticed the Sanders trying to hold Hazel back from cuffing Noah’s face. Rushing to her, Chris dragged her into a tight back hug, not letting her struggles release her from his grip. Despite this, Hazel kept trying to reach out for Scarlett’s things, anger slowly simmering into desperation as she struggled even more violently in Chris’ grip. Even so, he held her tight. “Hazel please, calm down. You know nothing good would come out of punching him, let it go,” he coaxed her pleadingly.

Snapping back her head to look Chris straight in the eye, Hazel yelled at him incredulously, “They’re taking our things away! How can I let that happen when she’s already gone?” Her hair was messy, tears already running wild down her cheeks, yet her eyes ablaze with a devastation Chris never thought he’d see from Hazel. But knowing the ramifications of punching a Capitol official, he squeezed her even tighter, resting his head onto her shoulder as he said, “Hazel, please. Just stop.”

Hearing his defeated tone, she went limp in his grip, watching the officials take away boxes of everything that had been part of Scarlett. Helplessly sobbing to the ground, the front door slammed shut with a resounding thud.

Chapter 5

Hours have passed since Hazel returned from Scarlett’s house. Hazel stared blankly at the walls of her bedroom, unbothered by her creased clothing from the outcry before. As she sat, scenes of the incident flashed past her mind, barely giving her time to process and piece together the entire event. Many questions popped up yet they all seemed to lead to one: Why would the Capitol want Scarlett’s belongings?

No matter how she thought about it, she couldn’t seem to understand. Then, a thought struck her. Hazel remembered the few papers that she had found in Scarlett’s room, and took them out from the pockets of her jeans, eyes widening with realisation. This could give her a clue! The papers were wrinkled from her shoving them in her pocket, but the writing was still fairly legible. Gently uncrumpling the pages, Hazel sat up straighter to read. “10 January 2060. Today is the actual day of the experiment. Words can’t express my excitement. If this experiment succeeds, it would be a huge step for the scientific community...” Compared to the entries of the days leading up to the experiment, this diary entry was strangely short.

Moving on to the next entry, Hazel squinted closely to interpret the faded words. “11 January 2060. The experiment turned out to be...rapid evacuation... destroyed...The barrier had to be put up...Salvadore survived...sworn to secrecy.” The writings could barely be formed into complete sentences, as Hazel attempted to make sense of this entry. “Salvadore”. What has this experiment got to do with our city when it was conducted in Sweden? And the “barrier”, what was that? Curiosity prompted her to keep reading. “The Capitol killed...outskirts of the city. Thousands of survivors kept out...” Hundreds of different thoughts sprouted, and the links between them grew clearer and clearer. The Capitol killed people. And something about that experiment went wrong. The Capitol of Salvadore was certainly hiding something. She frowned in contemplation, crossing her arms as another thought came to her. But if what the diary said was true, then thousands of victims would have been outside Salvadore, helpless in the pool of ramifications of the experiment that went awry.

“The outskirts of the city....” Hazel mumbled aloud. Knowing that this was the only place she could start investigating, she shot up from the floor, grabbed her coat, and headed out. The night air was cold with an occasional breeze, greeting her as she went into the car at the garage. The cool wind kept her brain clear, and she was even more determined to take matters in her own hands. Hazel rapidly started the car, and drove north towards the outskirts of town. For Scarlett, she would get to the bottom of this.

“Nothing suspicious here.” Adam threw down the box of clothes that they had just collected from Scarlett’s house the previous day. The cardboard container tumbled a few times as pieces of clothing came scattering out. “How many more boxes to go?”

“Three” Noah answered as he stood beside Adam.

Closing his eyes as he leaned back on his chair, Adam massaged his temples, brows furrowed together. “Scarlett Oceania Sanders.” Every word was enunciated slowly and carefully, his deep voice emphasising every word. It has been almost a week since they confiscated Scarlett’s belongings, yet nothing suspicious showed up. “Are you sure she was found trying to break through the barrier?”

“Yes. That’s why we had to get rid of her.” Adam sighed as he picked up another box from the floor. Just like all the other boxes, a pile of women’s clothing sat there, filled to the brim and waiting to be searched. Annoyed, extremely annoyed, Adam aggressively pulled the dresses and jeans out. “There’s no point wasting my time here going through all this trash!”

As expected, all that the box presented to him with were colourful pieces of fabric, and without hesitation, he discarded the useless box. Interestingly, as the box dropped, a small orange notebook silently fell out. It was not very big, with a faded cover, but it was enough to catch Adam’s eye. His eyes lit up, and immediately picked up the book. As he opened the book, he scanned the pages line by line, absorbing the information. His eyes gradually darkened with a dangerous glint. “Inform headquarters. We’ve found something.”

Chapter 6

With every step that Hazel took, the emptiness of her surroundings amplified it. It was dark, but the faint moonlight was enough for Hazel to know that there was nothing but tall grass and bushes around her. “I guess I’ve really reached the outskirts of the city.”

This was an environment so different from the bustling city life. Unsure where to begin, Hazel started walking around the area aimlessly. If what the diary said was true, she would definitely come across the “barrier” it mentioned.

Just then, she heard a rustling sound, and instinctively turned towards the source of the sound, the grass patch at her distant right. Alarmed, Hazel slowly advanced towards the area. Was it her imagination?

There it was again. Another faint rustle. This time, Hazel saw the movement clearly, a small dash of white moving swiftly among the grass. “Wait, what was that?” she exclaimed internally. The white figure was fast, not giving Hazel much time to react. Without thinking further, Hazel picked up her pace and started going after it. Athletic and active since young, Hazel had outstanding stamina and managed to close the great distance between the two after a few minutes of chasing.

What she saw left her speechless. This was a creature unlike anything Hazel had seen before, and despite having the face and limbs of a human, the scales on its skin stated otherwise. A walking snake? That was the most appropriate name that Hazel could give to the creature.

Confusion filled Hazel’s mind. Her brain was not capable of making sense how this mythical looking thing actually existed, and in fact, running right before her eyes. Was it human? Did it understand human language?

“Hey wait! Stop! I won’t hurt you!” Hazel yelled across the layers of grass. The creature obviously heard her, but simply turned back and shot her a suspicious glance before continuing to flee. “I’m serious! I know who you are!” Hazel persisted in her attempt to communicate, calling out to the creature.

Upon a few more tries, the creature began to slow down hesitantly. Taking her chance, Hazel sprinted towards it, and managed to block its way. For the first time, Hazel got a good, close-up look of the creature. A button nose, a frown that reeked of doubt, a pair of squinting eyes glaring at her. Little blooms of white wood and scales grew along its skin, numerous calluses spotted all across. Hazel was in awe, realising she was staring at something so out of this world. Seeing her wide-eyed gaze, the creature spoke up. “You know who I am?” It’s voice sounded like the pleasant ringing of silver bells.

“Well...sort of, I guess.” Averting her stare, Hazel tried to think of something to lie her way out. The diary! This must have something to do with what she read from the diary, it’s too unreal to not be. But as Hazel tried to recall what was on the diary, she noticed the creature staring at her, slowly squinting its eyes, evidence that it was getting more and more impatient as seconds ticked by without an answer.

“Ha, I knew it, you were lying! You don’t know who I am. What a waste of time.” Turning around, the creature stomped away. Something told her to get the creature to stop, before it could run away again, at its inhuman speed. Just then, a familiar sentence flashed through her mind, “Thousands of survivors kept out of the city...” Wait, if this is the outskirts, could it be one of the survivors? Without thinking, she blurted out, “Survivor!”

The stomping sound on the layers of grass stopped abruptly, the creature turning around not with curiosity but with anger flaring in its eyes. “What?” It was said almost silently, too softly had the wind not stopped for a few seconds. Hazel stood frozen, locked in by its intense gaze before repeating, “Survivor. You’re a survivor from outside of Salvadore, aren’t you?”

A scoff followed by a mocking smile was its answer. “So? Just because you know I am a survivor of The Fall means something? Do you, a Salvadorian, feel pity for me now?”

“Wha- why would I?”

“Just admit it. Salvadorians are terrible people. Except for Scarlett though, she’s an exception.” Those last few words drifted off faintly, but it was loud enough for Hazel to catch on.

“Wait. You know Scarlett?” Hazel’s confusion was completely replaced by shock.

The creature scorned, “Are we even talking about the same Scarlett? The Scarlett I knew was the kindest Salvodorian I knew, and she even offered to help our people get the truth out! We agreed to meet here five days ago-”

“But she didn't show up because she was dead!” Hazel completed the sentence for it.

“S-she’s dead? Wait, who are you and why do you know so much?” The creature steadied itself, cautiously running its eyes over Hazel.

“Scarlett’s my cousin, we grew up together. Here.” Hazel reached into the side pocket of her coat and pulled out a photo from her wallet. It was a photo taken together with Scarlett during her birthday last year. “Is this enough evidence?” Hazel held it up for the creature to see, and it slowly inched forward to examine the photo. “Oh, that really is Scarlett. Fine, I’ll believe you.”

“Thank god. Do you know any information you can share with me? Like, was she acting suspicious, perhaps suicidal? Just anything, would really be useful. We’re allies now, right?”

Hand rubbing its chin slowly, the creature analysed Hazel’s words and after a few, long seconds, it spoke up. “Before that, let me give you some backstory to the history of our people. There’s an old tale we tell, passed on from generation to generation. It’s pretty interesting I’ll say, but it makes my blood boil whenever I hear it, or see anyone of your kind.”

“So, what’s it about?” “Remember what I said just now, about The Fall? It happened in the Year 2060, the catastrophic event where large quantities of radiation caused by the explosion of a nuclear plant, resulting in the deaths of billions of people on Earth. The City of Salvadore, which means you people, being the world’s most technologically advanced place, managed to put up anti-radiation barriers to protect themselves and their citizens from harm in time.”

It was here that the creature shot her a look of vitriol and resent, lip curled downward as it recounted the unknown events to Hazel. “But, your city’s government, the Capitol wanted to cover up the disaster by removing all traces of The Fall. The Fall was then unknown to Salvadore’s future generations and became a forgotten memory for the entire Salvadore. Our parents would always say how Salvodorians are monsters, shutting out our ancestors when they were in desperate need, carrying on with your lives as if nothing happened. So, excuse my attitude when I first met you.”

Hazel did not know what to think. Never in her life had she imagined that there was such a bizarre story hidden behind this seemingly perfect city. “As to where Scarlett comes in, well, she found a diary that was written by one of the head scientists of the experiment that caused The Fall. This is how she discovered the existence of the barrier. Meanwhile, I had come up with a device to weaken the barrier temporarily to enter Salvadore. It’s an ugly world out there, too much radiation and too little resources to keep us going. Scarlett just happened to see me coming inside the day she visited the barrier. That's how we became friends.”

“Friends, you say?” Hazel gave it a quizzical look, considering it’s reaction when they first met.

“Well not at first, but that encounter was kinda similar to ours. After knowing the entire truth about The Fall, Scarlett decided that she would somehow get the truth out to Salvadorians and help us gain justice. That’s what I liked about her.” The creature spoke every word in a clear and collected manner, looking at Hazel in the eye as if trying to see through her intentions.

“Gain justice? She must have had a plan right?” This might have been Scarlett’s final wish, as her best friend, I should go through with her plan and finish what she started, Hazel thought.

With this in mind, Hazel desperately asked the creature, “Do you know anything about what she planned to do? Please, I want to help too.”

Perhaps it was Hazel’s wistful look in her eyes, maybe it was how her hands still unconsciously trembled at the mention of Scarlett. Realising Hazel’s care for Scarlett, the creature flashed a small smile at her. The small gesture did not go unnoticed, warmth filling up Hazel’s heart. Relaxing its stance, the creature stepped closer and reached out its hand. “Shall we get to know each other first? My name is Raziel, what’s yours?”

“Hazel. Hazel Olivia Hunter.”

Chapter 7

As Hazel sped through the empty city roads, there was so much on her mind, and she was bursting with the urge to share everything with someone. Without a doubt, the first person that came to mind was Chris. She pulled up in the familiar backyard, and ran inside the house.

“Oh hey Hazel! Why-”

“Hi Mrs Brooks! Is Chris home?”

“Yep, he's upstairs in his room.”

Hazel hurried up the wooden stairs and barged through the door, startling said man from his bed. “Chris! I’ve got to tell you something. Right now. Listen up!”

“Woah woah, calm down Hazel. Tell me what’s going on,” he chuckled in amusement, scooting closer to her to pay attention. Hazel casually grabbed a chair from his desk, quickly filling him in on her bizarre encounter.

After she was done, Chris raised an unimpressed eyebrow and rested his chin on his palm. “What? Are you joking with me right now? I’m not in the mood, I have an important interview tomorrow and I need to sleep.”

“No, trust me, just wait till you see Raziel. I swear you’ll be just as shocked as me.” Hazel tried her best to convince Chris, the only person she could trust with this information.

Sinking deep into thought, Chris pondered on what Hazel was saying, and there really was no reason for her to make this up. This is interesting, he thought, and decided to take her word and see it for himself. “Fine, bring me there.” Chris said with finality.

Hazel jumped up and clapped her hands, grabbing his wrist as she dragged him out of the house and into the car. Speeding down the same windy streets, Hazel arrived back at the outskirts of the city. Pushing through the tall grass, Hazel’s eyes searched for her “interesting” friend. It was not long before she spotted the same dash of white just feets away.

“What th-...That’s crazy, I’ve never seen anything like this before. H-how?” Chris’ stunned expression coupled with those words was enough to confirm how out-of-this-world this whole situation was.

Ignoring his confused look, Hazel greeted Raziel with a wide smile. “Hey! This is the friend I told you about. Can you give me the details of Scarlett’s plan now?”

Dumbfounded, Chris’ eyes doubled in size, “Wait, Scarlett? What is going on here?”

Upon hearing this, Hazel gave Chris a glance. “I’ll tell you about it later, listen to what Raziel has to say first. It’s really important.”

Raziel continued, “She wanted to broadcast everything to the whole city. She had the evidence and I was willing to testify, but as you already know, she was found out.”

A gasp came from Chris as he gradually started to make the links and connect the dots, but something else intrigued Hazel. “A broadcast? That’s a pretty good idea.”

“Woah, before all the planning and the details, are you people sure about this?” Raziel threw the both of them a doubtful look. “This is a big deal, you know. It could possibly ruin your entire society.”

Hazel paused, looking down. That was something she did not consider. All she had in mind was to fulfill Scarlett’s last wish, but would she be able to face the consequences that came with it? Looking back now, she could not begin to imagine the amount of courage Scarlett took to come to this decision, of exposing the deepest, darkest secret of this seemingly peaceful city. That was when she looked up.

“Yes, I’m sure.” A gleam of determination sparkled in her eyes.

Hazel turned to Chris. “I know this is still extremely confusing to you, and I haven’t got it straight either. But this is Scarlett’s last wish, and she died trying to complete this plan. Are you in?”

Chris was puzzled, but smiled at her. “Sounds like you’re getting yourself into trouble again, but count me in I guess.”

“Great, I think I know exactly what I want to do. Let’s follow through with Scarlett’s plan. And you, Raziel, I’ll need your help. You are the key evidence to prove to the people that the society we live in now is just an illusion. A perfectly crafted one by the government, to cover up their misdeeds.” Certainty shone through Raziel’s eyes, an affirmation for Hazel to continue on. “I need you to share about everything you know about your ancestors, and every tale you’ve heard about this disaster. Everything. It’s our best shot at convincing the people. Chris, we need to go and dig out more evidence, we need to build a strong case against the Capitol, so I’ll need your help.” Total chaos ensued.

Chapter 8

“Incoming hologram.” The robotic voice filled up the metal walls of the small office. Adam and Noah immediately rushed to the hologram projector at the corner of the room. Only the headquarters, more commonly known as the Capitol, could utilise holograms to communicate with their offices, and if they had something to say, it must have been extremely important. A laser beam shot out from the projector, breaking up into small rays that eventually pieced together a three-dimensional human figure. It was not long before the figure became clearer and a woman, not more than five feet tall, was projected from above the projector. The robotic voice proceeded to drone on about the safety precautions they needed to take note of.

“Hello, please clear the room and ensure that only the officials involved in Scarlett Sanders’ case are present here. The following information shared must not be, under any circumstances, leaked outside this office. Should that happen, you will be held fully accountable.”

“Good evening, we have received your report on Scarlett Sanders this morning, and after much discussion, this is how we would like you to take action.” Nodding at each other, Adam and Noah readied themselves for the instructions. “Hunt down Hazel Hunter. Judging from her reaction to Scarlett Sanders’ death and the investigation done to the people around Sanders, there’s a high chance that Hazel Hunter knows something. Squeeze every single bit of information you can get from her. We expect an update by the end of 24 hours. That’s all.”

The woman talked with her prideful nose high in the air, her presence suffocating the officials. A soft beep sounded and the hologram of the woman disappeared. Adam and Noah both yawned, preparing themselves for a long night. “Ugh, we were barely done with Scarlett Sanders, and now what, Hazel Hunter? I guess we have to come up with a plan to arrest that Hunter girl,” Adam groaned to Noah.

Walking out of the Capitol building towards their car, the sky was already dark, and their recent instructions only served to lengthen their oncoming workload. “I guess we should start with the Hunter girl’s house then?” As they started discussing their next move, Noah revved up the engine, driving towards the target. Not long after, they parked their car in the driveway, and walked up the flight of stairs, knocking loudly and impatiently on Hazel’s door.

Soon enough, they heard footsteps getting closer and closer, and then the door swung open to reveal Hazel. Her eyebrows creased together and lips curled into a distasteful frown. “What can I do for you, officials?” she said sarcastically, a hard glare drilling into the two officials before her.

Placatingly raising his hands at Hazel, Adam raised his badge and said, “Sorry to disturb you so late, I assume you are Hazel Hunter? Officer Adam and Noah here. We have some questions regarding Scarlett Sanders, and we’re hoping you could kindly provide the necessary information.” Noah smiled back, hinting that she actually didn’t have a choice.

The frown on her face only got deeper, her grip on the door tightening with his words. “I suppose I can’t reject that request huh?” Hazel replied mockingly and raised her eyebrows slightly.

“Hazel, who’s at the door?” Mrs Hunter’s voice came, the drowsiness in her voice was clear. Not long after, a couple in their fifties appeared beside Hazel. “Oh dear, what’s going on here?”

“Ah, perfect timing. Hello, Mr and Mrs Hunter. Sorry to disturb your peaceful night, but your daughter here is due for some questioning, and we would have to take her away.” At the sight of Mrs Hunter’s panic-stricken eyes and Mr Hunter’s agitated glance, Noah assured her, “Don’t worry though, she’ll be back before the day ends tomorrow!”

Mr Hunter was not ready to budge. “Can we have more details? We have the right to know what you are going to do with our child.”

“Yeah, is it possible that I accompany Hazel throughout the interrogation? We really don’t want Hazel to be alone in there.” Mrs Hunter spoke up again, her tone laced with concern.

“I'm afraid we are unable to provide more information, as it would breach our safety measures. As for your request, you would be allowed to visit her, but accompanying is strictly prohibited. With how confidential everything is in the Capitol, we can’t afford to have any information leaks.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll go with the two of you. But before that, could you let me use the bathroom first? It’s really urgent, please. Just five minutes!” Hazel said to Adam.

Adam sighed and looked at his partner who shrugged his shoulders. Turning back to Hazel, Adam nodded. “Just five minutes, okay? We gotta go back to the office quickly, kid.” Noah warned her.

Receiving his approval, Hazel turned and headed inside the house. Five minutes passed, yet Hazel still did not come out. There was not even a sound of the water flushing, or the tap running. The house was silent. Way too silent. “Something’s wrong. Why hasn’t she come out yet?” Sharing a look, the duo shoved the Hunters aside and barged into the house. “Where’s the toilet?” Running down the hallway, they looked left and right, and noticed a closed door at the far end, rushing towards it. As they pushed the door open, a breeze of cold wind greeted them from a wide opened window, the toilet was completely empty. “Dammit, she ran!”

Chapter 9

Panting heavily, muscles burning, Hazel pushed her legs forward, knowing she had to reach safe grounds. Focus, Hazel, focus! Turn left now, his house isn’t that far, you’ll make it! Hazel’s thoughts ran wild, adrenaline tugging out the memories of what just happened minutes ago. The officials coming to her house, her parents’ concern for her, her apparent detainment by the Capitol. One more turn to the right and Hazel saw the recognisable dimly lit window, a black silhouette blurred by distance. Hope sprung from her heart, a smile graced her lips. She was going to be fine.

Sensing the vibration of his phone, Chris rolled onto the side of the bed near the bedside table. “Open your window. Now!” He reiterated to himself, unsure what the message meant. Nevertheless, Chris moved to open his window, only to see a head pop up who was none other than Hazel Hunter.

“Hey Chris, sorry to crash by so suddenly,” she said between deep pants whilst casually climbing into his room, “I was just chased by some Capitol officials so I had to get away. Just let me borrow some of your things, I’ll be leaving before sunrise.”

“Of course Hazel, you don’t need to ask. What happened though? Did they find out about Raziel or something?”

Shaking her head silently, she hurriedly replied, “I’ll explain everything to you another day, I don’t have the time right now. We need to put our plan in action, let’s figure out the details now. Okay?”

A little lost, Chris blankly nodded his head at her. Rummaging through his closet, Hazel continued. “I’ll just raid your closet since I can’t be found out when I head to where I plan to broadcast our message to the public.” Changing her jacket for his plait button up, Hazel turned back to Chris with a serious look. “I’m thinking maybe we should carry everything out using the television network. It is the simplest way to get across to a large group of audiences. The actual television broadcast should happen preferably three days later from now so I can have enough time to prepare. Let’s set it at around 8pm, that is the relative time when people head back from work.”

Despite Chris’ blank look on his face, he was taking mental notes, remembering the day and time Hazel wanted to carry out their plan. But, in order to do so, Hazel needed to have the skills to even get into the broadcasting system. Leaning onto his bed, Chris asked, “But Hazel, how are you going to connect to the television system? You can’t hack into the system easily, can you?”

Flashing a boyish grin, Hazel replied, “Well, let’s just say I secretly learnt some good hacking skills from Scarlett.”

“Then, what do I have to do for the next few days?” Chris asked her.

“I need you to lie low for now. But don’t forget to keep in touch, and update me on new findings.” Soon enough, Hazel had packed up enough resources from his room to last around a week, Chris letting her take his stash of snacks for the next week or so.

“Will you be back soon?” Chris tentatively asked as they approached his window, his heart full of worry at the thought of what the Capitol might do to her.

Noticing Chris’ pessimism, Hazel gently took his hand and smiled up at him. “Everything’s going to be fine, Chris. We’re in this together.” A wave goodbye, and Hazel hopped down to his backyard, fleeing into the dark night that hid her.

Hastily scurrying back to their car, Adam and Noah huffed angrily in annoyance. “I knew it. We shouldn’t have let her go to the toilet, it’s all your fault Noah! Now we have to explain everything to headquarters.” Angrily muttering the words, Adam started up the car.

Noah picked up Adam’s grumbles, and responded, “Why is it suddenly all my fault? That’s not fair, you agreed to it too. Whatever, that’s not important now. Let’s just hope we don’t get fired after we report this to them.” Kicking his footwell, Noah tried to vent out his frustration at his bleak and dull career prospects.

Soon enough, they arrived back at the office, and without wasting a second, Adam and Noah rushed back into the communication room. Locking the doors behind them, they began recording their message. For them, there is only one way to send reports or updates to the headquarters, and that is, by sending an audio message through a device known as “The Informer”. With a seashell-like shape, The Informer uses wireless network to speed up communications. “Done. Okay, let’s send it over.” Noah said, as he checked the audio one last time, ensuring that all the details of the encounter with Hazel have been included. Ding! The audio message was sent.

“Now, let’s just wait and hope for the best.” There was nothing they could do but wait for further instructions, and as minutes ticked by, it got later and later, and the two got more and more sleepy. Gradually, their eyelids started drooping, and just as they were about to give in to their tiredness, the same robotic voice from earlier rang through the room.

“Incoming hologram.” Following that, the robotic voice began reciting the boring chunk of safety precautions. Then, there was a slight pause. Adam and Noah perked up their ears, knowing well that after this pause would come the set of instructions. “Good evening, we have received your report on Hazel Hunter, and after much discussion, this is how we would like you to take action.” Nodding at each other, Adam and Noah readied themselves for the instructions. “Target her close friend, Christopher Brooks. Pressure him, threaten him, I don’t care what you do. No matter what, I expect updates by the end of 24 hours. That’s all.”

“Chris, get down here now!” Chris’ mom’s voice rang through the house, as she eyed the two burly officials at her doorstep just after sunrise. Almost immediately, Chris ran down the stairs, assuming he had done something to anger his mom again. But what he saw when he reached the door was far more frightening than his mother’s fury. Two amicably fake smiles faced him, sending chills down Chris’ spine, clenching his fists to calm his beating heart.

“Hello Chris. My apologies, Mrs Brooks, but can we speak to your son alone?” Raising a brow at them, his mother nodded reluctantly and walked away, but not before casting a worried glance at her son. Returning her glance with his most reassuring smile, Chris led Adam and Noah to the front porch.

“Talk.” They snickered, “You’re pretty quick, aren’t you? You know what we’re here for right?”

Pressing his lips into a thin line and crossing his arms, Chris nodded.

“In that case, let’s not waste each other’s time. Here’s the deal, if you don’t tell us everything you know about Hazel and her silly little plans, the Capitol will kill your entire family, and label them traitors. They won’t die in peace, so you better fess up now.”

The composed look on Chris did not change, and he smirked when they finished their sentence. “So this is the true side of our seemingly perfect government? Tyrannising innocent civilians using death threats with no evidence. Regarding Hazel’s whatsoever plan, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He stared straight into the duo’s eyes, no sign of backing down.

“Well young man, I believe you will come to regret your words today.” Noah squinted his eyes.

“I’ll make sure to tell you when I do. Goodbye.”

Without giving them the chance to speak another word, Chris went back in and shut the door. The moment the door was locked, his tough expression faded into a worried frown. After a moment of thought, Chris walked over to the kitchen, where his mother was busy cooking breakfast. “Hey mom, watch out for your safety these days.” Those were the only words Chris gave before heading back to his room. He collapsed face up on his bed, closing his eyes. He knew that the Capitol was coming for him and his family, and their safety was at stake.

The rest of the day passed peacefully, despite Chris’ distress. As for now, he and his family were still safe. “Chris, dinner time!” His mother’s familiar voice bolted out. That was when he broke away from his thoughts and to his surprise, the sky was already dim. How long has he been lying on his bed? With a troubled mind, he sat up wearily.

“Smash!” The sound of broken glass accompanied by a red brick flew straight into his room, aimed towards him. Chris instinctively squatted down to dodge, only to see it land some inches away from his bed with a muffled thud. His heartbeat was loud in his ears, quickly checking outside his window in an attempt to locate the culprit. The neighbourhood was too dark now, and not a single soul was in sight. The chirping of the crickets only made the whole situation seem even more eerie. Walking back towards his bed, he began examining the brick. A small piece of white paper was attached with what looked like a fishing line. Chris cautiously opened the note, and in it wrote the bright red word “Brooks” that had been crossed out multiple times with a dagger drawn at the side of it. At the bottom of the note, a phone number was messily scribbled. With trembling hands, Chris crumpled the note, fist clenched so hard that his nails formed small indents on his palm. His hands went cold with sweat as he stood rooted to the ground. Silence reigned all too long, yet his mind was rattling with thoughts, every different thought battling with each other. If you took a look into Chris’ head now, it would resemble a bloody battlefield. Just then, something came across his mind, and he dashed out his room. To his relief, both his parents were still alive and well, except for the startled looks on their faces.

“Hey, did glass break in the house or something? I thought I heard something upstairs.” Mr Brooks questioned.

“Oh, no no. There was nothing, dad, everything’s fine.” Chris tried his best to hide the stammer in his voice.

“Come and eat, dear.” Mrs Brooks gestured to Chris to take a seat, but he was in no mood to eat right now. “Mom, dad, I, uh, need to head out somewhere right now. It’s really important I swear. I’ll be back real quick!”

That brick, that note, that phone number had done its job. Chris made his decision. Pulling out his phone, Chris referred to the note in his palm, dialling the phone number. With the first few rings going unanswered, Chris grew more anxious and bit his lip. But, as he dealt with his myriad of emotions, the phone stopped ringing, and Noah’s voice screeched from the speaker. “Well, seems like you’ve made your choice. Who’s your sacrifice, Brooks?”

“Hazel. I’ll sacrifice Hazel.”

The following day, Hazel received a suspicious message from Chris, setting a deep frown on her face. “Mother bird has found the nest. Switch it up.” Her phone pinged again. “Apollo.”

Chapter 10

“Raziel!” Hazel shouted across the room.

Raziel scurried over and as it did so, it updated Hazel, “I finished writing my script for the broadcast. I think you can check through it once, and we’re good to go!”

“Sure, give it to me.” Hazel replied, as she extended her arm. Skimming through the few pages of Raziel’s script, Hazel winced at the messy handwriting that was almost painful to read. She occasionally nodded, showing her content with parts of the script. As she flipped the last page close, Hazel looked at Raziel and commented, “I think it’s pretty decent, I mean it describes the disastrous effects The Fall had on your people, especially appearance-wise. Maybe you could add in how the Capitol just left everyone else to fend for themselves, despite everything being their doing.”

Pleased, Raziel shot her a proud look, and uttered, “Wow, I’m pretty amazing, aren’t I? It’s my first time even holding a pen in my hand.” Raising one eyebrow, Hazel gave Raziel a skeptical look, as she spoke, “Getting a full of yourself already? Let’s hope you can keep this confidence up when our broadcast is shown on millions of billboards out there.”

“Right, about that. Are you sure you would be able to hack the public network system? When was your city so loose on security?” Uncertainty was apparent in Raziel’s voice.

“Trust me. Scarlett used to hack a lot for fun, and I’ve learnt a thing or two. And guess what, the security code for the billboard systems is much easier to break than that of the television systems. I guess it was a good idea to change systems.” Hazel patted Raziel’s shoulders reassuringly. Checking the time, Hazel said, “It’s getting pretty late, we get some rest now. Tomorrow’s the big day. We need to get up bright and early to set everything up.”

“Gosh, I must say that the sofa is just impossible to sleep on. It creaks every single time I flip over at night.” Hazel rubbed her temples, a troubled look etched into her face.

“Just appreciate the fact that you stumbled upon this building. It might be slightly run down-”

Hazel shook her head, and groaned, “Slightly? The walls are covered in thick mosses, the paint’s barely clinging onto the walls. For goodness sake, half the roof of this building is gone!”

“Okay, it’s pretty run down, but at least it’s some sort of shelter.” Raziel countered as it looked around the interior of the building and nodded, giving its approval.

“And those white sheets upstairs! They’re draped on every end of the furniture, gosh I still get scared every time I see them at night! Argh!” Hazel complained as she shuddered at the thought of those white-cloth draped furniture in the rooms above. “It’s our last night here, so sleep. Tomorrow is going to be an eventful day.”

Raziel slowly walked up the spiral staircase, as the creaky hinges announced their presence. “See you in the morning.”

Unable to fall asleep, Hazel surveyed her surroundings with a heavy heart, the thought of Chris kept her awake. Slapping herself lightly, she tried to distract herself from the raging emotions within her. It had been three days since she went on the run. Chris’ message was how she knew that the Capitol found out about her plans, and because he warned her to change her plans, she did. But the message that followed, was what left her shocked. It was his apology. Though it was only a word, she knew exactly what he meant. He sold her out.

Since then, Hazel had been feeling emptier than usual. Not the empty when Scarlett died, just a big mix of indescribable feelings. Was it hurt? Betrayal? Loneliness? Hazel couldn’t tell even till now. Although Raziel was being extremely helpful to her for the past two days, it didn’t feel the same. The change in plans had kept her busy, her mind not having to think too much about everything that had happened the past two days. But there were always these moments where her heart would feel as if it was being weighed down into the ocean. She constantly wondered why he betrayed her. Had she been a bad friend? Too focused on her grief that she had forgotten that Chris had to deal with Scarlett’s death in his own way too?

Chris’ grinning face was plastered in her mind, marred with the code words he had sent her the other day. Apollo, the word she, Scarlett and Chris came up with when they were seven to say sorry in their way. It was their apology, something so precious to her that seeing it in this way did a little more than break her heart.

Looking up at the moon from the open roof, “I wonder what the world is like out there...” she murmured to herself. No matter if the world outside the barriers was imperfect and ridden with radiation, a part of Hazel wished to just step foot out of the utopia she had grown up in, the walls she had never known that existed suffocating her. Maybe, after she and Raziel had completed their plan, she and Chris could work something out. After all, she only had him left. With wishful thinking, Hazel drifted to sleep.

“Good morning! Rise and shine!” Raziel shouted as it flung off Hazel’s “blanket”, which was essentially just the white cloth that draped over the sofa.

Dazed, Hazel opened her eyes by a slit, furrowing her brows at Raziel’s action. She grabbed her “blanket” and pulled them over her head, wanting to sleep a bit more. “Hey! We don’t have time for this, get up already! You know how important this day is, don’t you?” Raziel reminded Hazel about the broadcast today, hoping that would get her to start moving quickly. They needed as much time as they could, and sleeping wasn’t a priority right now. After a few minutes, Hazel pushed off the sofa and sat up groggily. Rubbing her eyes, her vision started to focus, and she felt the gears in her mind start turning again, signifying the start of today.

“Okay, I’m in the router!” Hazel exclaimed, excited that they were making progress.

“Yes, good job! How long more?” Raziel congratulated, not having a clue how hacking works.

“Don’t rush me, Raziel. It’s taking longer than usual because this is a different router from the one we planned, so I haven’t practiced hacking this one yet. We’ll get there though.” After a while of clicking a series of keys on the keyboard, Hazel managed to gain access to the speaker system of Queen’s station. Queen’s station was the main centre of transportation in Salvadore, being a train station and bus stop for all commuters, it was a good place to start broadcasting the truth about Salvadore. Settling down quickly, she seized control of the billboard loudspeakers and the microphone. Taking in a deep breath, Hazel started calmly, “Good evening fellow Salvadorians, may I please have your attention. This is an extremely important message...”

“All units ready?” Adam barked at those in the room, receiving a bunch of shouts in return that they were ready. Scratching his head impatiently, Adam tried to relieve his nervousness, knowing that if he screwed this up, he was as good as dead. This was their last chance to redeem themselves, they even went to the extent of threatening Chris and his family. They had to stop her. No matter what.

“Five seconds to 8pm, all teams get ready for the countdown!” Noah, with his hands on the control button, stared straight at the clock in front of him. 57...58...59... It was officially 8pm in the evening.

“Shut down all television cable networks across the city now!” Once the command was given, all cyber units punched down on their respective control button, and all the screens on the wall which were previously flickering rapidly switched off into pitch black. There was momentary silence as everyone waited for a worst case scenario. When nothing out of the blue appeared on the screens, the staff erupted into wild cheers, relieved that they had shut down an operation that threatened the Capitol’s control over the city.

“There goes Hunter and her dirty little tricks. Let’s see how she gets the secret out now.” Adam relaxed his tensed shoulders, and kicked his feet up onto the table beside him. “Mission accomplished.” The rest of the officials, relieved by his words, started streaming out of the office. Their job here was done.

Just when the room was left with only Adam and Noah, hurried footsteps came from outside the operation room, followed by an employee panickily opening the door. “Officers Adam and Noah, we have just received emergency news that Hazel Hunter has hacked the billboards in Queen’s station, and is currently carrying out a live broadcast.”

The stricken look on the duo changed back into their tensed expression at lighting speed. “What are you talking about? That Brooks boy said she would be hacking the televisions, not the billboards. Shucks!” Adam ran out of the office, with Noah slightly behind as they both have yet to recover from the confusion. “Start up the car, we’re heading to Queen’s station. I think we’ve been tricked!”

Located at the center of the city, Queen’s station was merely a mile or so from The Capitol’s branch office. The duo arrived in no time, and upon parking their car, sprinted out of the vehicle. “This is Raziel. I know you might be surprised by its appearance, but this is what our very own government has done to all those survivors out there.” The two officials made it just in time to see Raziel being introduced to the camera, its face filling the entire ten metres long billboard at the center of the station building. A large crowd of a good hundred people had already gathered at the front of the billboard, and the crowd was getting larger. “Hello Salvadorians, I am Raziel, one of the rebels being kept out of the city.” Raziel’s voice was stammered a little to prove its nerves, but yet it carried on. “About a century ago, The Fall happened....”

The officers watched in utter disbelief as the creature revealed this long hidden secret to the public, right in front of their eyes. Thoughts on whether they should do something sprouted up, yet they knew doing anything would be too late. The secret could no longer be covered up. “...and that is the entire story of our people, and the entire truth about this seemingly perfect city. Thank you.” Those two words ended off as if this was just any ordinary speech, but it was far from that. The impact was unimaginable. Thousands of Salvadorians gathered, and they stood silently still, not knowing how to react or process this world-changing piece of information. As they tried to make sense of what they had just learnt, one of them turned to look in the direction of the city outskirts, with more following suit. Decades of secrets laid beyond the barrier, waiting to be uncovered.

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