Today may be my last day on earth. In simple terms, I might die today. I can hear the screams of the people anticipating and yelling for blood. Their voices echo in my head like angry war cries. I clutch a dagger tightly in my hand. It is the only weapon I have for defense in this arena of death and chaos. I close my eyes and say a silent prayer.
Things were not always like this. People did not have to think of death when they clocked eighteen. I have read books and heard stories of how youngsters like myself got excited on their eighteenth birthday. Our world was a Utopia before the Apocalypse that happened in 2050. The elders who survived told us stories of this catastrophe that tore the world apart. They say it was something worse than a coronavirus, another disaster that preceded the Apocalypse. I was born in the post-apocalyptic times after 2050. All the children born after this time are called children of the new age. What we know about the world before 2050 is through the Survivors–our Elders who survived the Apocalypse and lived to tell us what happened. My mother is a Survivor and told me most of what I know about the former world.
In the year 2050, Kampala and the rest of the world experienced an epidemic cataclysm that came with waves of destruction and chaos. The world experienced deadly earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which cracked the earth open like a shattered egg. Towering buildings in cities crumbled, and so did the infrastructure that existed in most towns. They say the destruction lasted for several months; the earth was plunged into grim darkness and the sun abandoned her people. A multitude died from this impromptu chaos, and it is a miracle that some even survived. When the chaos eventually ceased, the earth was a scarred and uninhabitable landscape. The handful of people who survived the aftermath of this chaos had to learn how to forge a new existence. Most of the Survivors are religious fanatics who claim that this Apocalypse was a punishment from God for the sins and destruction that humans had brought upon the earth. A kind of purging from God to create a new world. Most cities have since then dedicated sacred places of worship as centres of prayer and worship.
Our city, New Dawn, is one of the new post-apocalyptic towns. The new cities have names that echo songs of rebirth and fresh beginnings. For instance, we have the City of Redemption, which is our neighbor and closest ally. The City of Fresh-day, north of our town, Safe Haven in the west and Fort of Refuge in the east. Countries are no longer in existence and most people prefer to live in cities under the command of a chosen leader. In New Dawn, Lord Vibaya is our leader. He is one of the survivors and was a soldier before the Apocalypse. Most of the survivors took up new names after the destruction to mark their fresh beginnings. Vibaya stayed with the name from his past life. He implored the title Lord for respect.
Each city has adapted new ways to survive in its fresh existence. In New Dawn, we no longer build towering buildings, for the catastrophe taught us how much damage they cause in the wake of an earthquake. We live in simpler bungalows made of timber and bricks. There is a Museum at the City Square where pictures and items which survived the Apocalypse are kept. Once a month, schoolchildren are taken to watch documentaries about life in the former world. The documentaries are mostly pictures taken by the Survivors and an archive of records built from their collected stories. I believe that the children of the former time were happier. They lived normal lives in big cities graced by technology, cars, robots and had a stretch of opportunities to be whatever they wanted. Here, things have been limited to fit in the margin of survival. Once someone turns eighteen, the legal age to be considered an adult, they must partake in tests to decide which sector they will belong to serve the society. Trials with difficult games that examine strength, knowledge, mobility and fighting abilities. The performance on these tests marks the duty you will partake in until you die.
New-Dawn operates under a dictatorial Constitution made by Lord Vibaya and his small Council–mostly the Survivors who founded the town. Mama often complains that Vibaya’s decrees are ferocious and way worse than how the former government ruled. She says Vibaya is a madman who took advantage of weak Survivors still nursing PTSD and he should have never used dictatorship to build a society. She usually says these things behind closed doors and away from Vibaya’s spies. There is a penalty for those who talk ill about their leaders. It is labeled a crime of treason.
The tests allocate citizens of New-Dawn to different classes in society. Elites, The Average Collective, Workers and Warriors. The Elites are the noblemen of our society and makers of the decisions that influence New Dawn. They have power and authority. Vibaya and most of the Survivors are in this group. The Elites marry within their cluster, and their children do not participate in the society tests to determine which class they belong to. It is a privilege to be born an Elite. The Average Collective is made up of mainly the new descendants born in the post-apocalyptic generation. The people in this group are those who perform fairly well on the tests. The Average Collective enjoys almost the same privileges as the Elites. They can influence some societal decisions and exact some authority. The doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses and all the proprietors of the white-collar office jobs come from this sect. The Workers are those who fail the tests. In our new society, the Workers do most of the manual jobs. They are the janitors, cleaners, and cooks, who are called whenever a derogatory job needs to be done. All the children of the new age are taught to pass their tests and at least join the Average Collective. It is shameful to become classified under the Workers. The Warriors are the strongest and best in the tests. They are the defenders of our community and are to be respected just like the Elites. Warriors are our Army, and Lord Vibaya is their Chief Commander. I know only four girls that have won these tests and become Warriors. Hopefully, if I survive today, I may become a Warrior too.
The children of the new age have limited choices. You can only become an Elite, Average Collective or a Worker. In the past, children could anticipate being a doctor, engineer, actress, musician or whatever they wanted to be. In this post-apocalyptic time, society chooses you. Every city has their class stratification and this is how ours works. The groups in New Dawn also have specific dictated wardrobe clothing and colors. The Elites wear lavish gowns, tunics and kaftans sewn by the Workers. Their clothes are made from the finest silk and thread in the land. The Workers wear dull brown khaki overalls or dresses for the women. The Average Collective can only wear clothes in two colours; Black and Grey. The Workers sew clothes for them too. Children of the new age wear only sky blue until they turn eighteen and are allocated a sect. The Survivors who made this arrangement believe it will promote easy governance of their new society.
Mama is a nurse. Before the Apocalypse, she was in her third year at medical school and was going to be a radiologist. Mama never wanted to get married or have children. She says she was having lunch with her friends at a cafeteria when the disaster happened. Although the news had been flooding with reports of earthquakes cracking cities open and spewing lava, she was convinced the disaster would never reach Kampala, the city where she lived. The part of the world where she lived had experienced minor earthquakes and had no tales of volcanic eruptions. She believed that their city was safe. Mama often cries when she talks about her former life. She was the only girl among four brothers. Her parents were in the medical field and had inspired her to take the same path. She says that she tried to look for her family after the Apocalypse, but it was vanity because the catastrophe might have killed them or displaced them to another part of the world. The other Survivors have similar stories of loss. Most charity organizations were shattered as a result of the catastrophe, and there was no one to help people locate their families. In New Dawn, there is a decree that compels every man and woman to have children by at least twenty-five years. Every household must have at least two children. This decree was implemented in most societies so that people could procreate and replace the lost population. Only the Warriors are exempted from this law. The population on the earth has increased over the years because of this statute. I still have a few years ahead before I become affected by this law.
Nobody is allowed to defy the laws of our state. Those who dare to challenge the laws are labeled Outcasts and executed at the city square. Their heads are planted on spikes and left hanging for a week so that the birds can feast on them. Prisons do not exist in New Dawn. Trial sessions rarely exist. At first, religious fanatics tried to challenge the government of our society using the former disaster as a point for their argument. Vibaya executed most of them and they gave up on trying to question his ridiculous statutes.
My father was executed at the City Square. I was only six when the Warriors came home and dragged him to his execution. Baba was a teacher and had been accused of collaborating with Outcasts. A sect of Rebels who wanted Vibaya to be removed as leader. Vibaya has ruled New Dawn since the post-apocalypse. It is thirty years since he became a leader and he has never given a chance to anyone else to lead. Mama says that when New Dawn was founded, there was a decree that stated that after five years, a new leader would lead the city to create room for fresh rule. Vibaya nullified this law. It is no longer in existence.
Baba’s execution made me understand the term Outcast. The diminished sector for traitors, rebels, deserters and all who dare to challenge the rule of law. He was accused of being part of the Rebels who wanted to overthrow Lord Vibaya. Visitors usually came to our house and had long living-room conversations with Baba. After the visits, Mama would quarrel with him and beg him to stop bringing Rebels to the house. Rebels, I thought the word was another slur. An insult used by Mama for Baba’s visitors.
My parents were both survivors and had bonded on grounds of loss. Baba had lost a leg in the cataclysm and wore a makeshift prosthetic leg that he had designed for himself. He walked with a limp as a result of his prosthetic leg. Father rarely spoke about his former life with me in the same way Mama did. Once, I was eavesdropping on a conversation with his friends when I learnt some things about his past. I often placed my ears against the cardboard wall of my bedroom and listened to their conversations. Mama would be busy in the kitchen cooking or pretending to entertain the visitors. I heard one of the visitors ask Baba if he missed his first wife, Annamae. The visitors sounded intoxicated by the homemade beer, which was distilled out of fermented banana and sorghum. Even though the soil had become infertile over the years, it could still grow some crops. The cataclysm made people go back to crude methods of distillation because most factories were destroyed. The costs of living were too high and we mostly relied on barter exchange as a medium of trade. Baba had rumbled in a drunken spur about how much he missed Annamae, his first wife. He said that they were newly married and were planning to go to Rabat for their honeymoon. He also said that she was heavily pregnant and would have made him a father of twins. This is how I came to learn that he was married before.
Mama got furious and complained that it was improper to talk about his former wife like that in her presence. One of the visitors in his drunken stupor called Mama a selfish cunt. The insult brewed an aggressive argument and then a bloody exchange of blows. I wondered if Mama was involved in the fighting. She is a small woman. I could not imagine her putting up a fight against the muscular visitors that came to the house.
Without thinking, I ran to the living room with a straw broom in my hand as a defence weapon for Mama. I was young and stupidly believed that she needed my help. It was Baba who fought with the man who insulted Mama. My mother simply stood watching with tears in her eyes. The fight stopped when they saw me. Mama rushed to where I was standing. She picked up the straw broom and spanked me with it for being awake past my bedtime. That was the last time the visitors ever came to our house. The next time I saw them was with their heads pinned on spikes at the city square. I dream about that visit sometimes. In my dreams, Baba and the visitors are headless men.
I stand at the city arena looking at the caged beasts growling from their cages. A trio of starved tigers that flash their canines ruthlessly at us. Like us, they had no choice but to participate in these tests. The arena will be sealed shut and only the participants will be locked inside to put up a defense against the animals. The arena is a stadium that was built purposely for these tests. Innovations have been put in place over the years putting the trials into consideration.
The girl standing at my side retches for the second time. She is terrified. I want to stretch my hand and hold hers to assure her that we will make it out of this phase alive. This is the first stage of the tests. The hardest of all the trials. Most of the Workers are picked from this stage. We are only allowed to carry a single weapon for defense. It is either a dagger or a knife. We are twenty eighteen-year-olds waiting to face this marathon. The Council has records of all the children of the new age. We are rounded up as soon as we clock eighteen and prepared for this initiation into adulthood.
Some parents tried to challenge this decree and they were given the same penalty as Outcasts. Nothing ever prepares you for this medieval naturalization. The trials will run for a week in shifts. The Elites are the only spectators allowed to watch the tests from the comfortable seats outside the arena. The other sects listen to a live stream of the event from radios. I think about Mama crying and worrying at home. If she had her way, she would have ensured that I did not participate in these tests. Also, if Baba had not been executed, she would have had more children to keep her company in case I do not survive.
“You will win!” I echo the mantra in my head as I clutch the dagger. The weapon was Mama’s gift for my eighteenth birthday. It is supposed to be my talisman.
Lord Vibaya gives the introductory speech to commence the tests. He does this every year. It is protocol. He is dressed in a long Kaftan made of shiny thread. Thick dreadlocks stretch from his head past his shoulder. They look like fat black ropes planted into his scalp. He has aged over the years. Rolls of flesh hang from his body and make him look like a stuffed clown. His large stomach peeks out of his Kaftan like he is pregnant. I agree with the Rebels. He has lived and flourished enough from being our leader. He bellows into the microphone. The Elites cheer from the seats outside the arena to everything he says. They love watching the tests. That is why they will do anything to enforce Vibaya and his ridiculous decrees.
I shiver from the cold. A silver crescent moon peeks from the night clouds. There are barely any stars in the sky. It is almost as though they are afraid of the grisly scene that is about to unfold in the arena. All the participants are dressed in matching black tracksuits sewn by the Workers. The cold breeze penetrates the long sleeves of my thin clothing and makes me shiver. The first stage of the tests is done at night. Lord Vibaya orchestrated the tests using his former experience as a Soldier. He believes that the night is another way to ensure survival. Mama is right. Vibaya is a madman. His statutes are delusional.
The tigers roar from their cages planted in the center of the arena. They are Vibaya’s pets. He stands next to the caged animals and bellows excitedly about the tests from his microphone.
For an instant, I think I am having an illusion when Vibaya lands on the ground like a heavy sack. He has been shot by one of the Warriors. A young lad stands in front of Vibaya and points a gun at his face. Time seems to freeze for a while. Only a lunatic would boldly choose to attack the most feared man in our city this way.
My mind is spinning. I want to pass out. The man who points the gun is Noble. My childhood best friend. He is my first love too.
I have known Noble since I was a child. His family stays adjacent to our house. We played together and indulged in the pleasures of childhood that our new age had to offer. As I grew older and puberty started to set in, he was the only boy that I imagined would be my husband when the time came for me to have children. He had grown into an attractive Adonis and started to gain attention from other teenage girls like myself. When I was fifteen, I got angry with a girl from my school who said that I was too unappealing to even think of ever having Noble’s children. I am used to being insulted about my skin. It is a different shade in comparison to the other inhabitants of our city.
New-Dawn is inhabited mostly by Africans. We have a very small handful of the other races. Before the Apocalypse, the world was rapidly becoming a diverse global village. There are very few people with skin like mine. A handful that I can count on my fingertips. My brown skin is covered in hyperpigmentation that looks like I was tattooed by a moonlight silver tapestry. Patches of color dance like radiant patterns on my body. In the dark, my skin emits a beaming silver resembling a celestial tapestry. The bizarreness of this hyperpigmentation is easily noticeable.
When the disorder first broke out in New-Dawn years ago, it was known as the curse. Most people saw it as a dreadful and heinous kind of leprosy. Parents kept their children away from those infected. Medical practitioners did a series of tests and labeled it a disorder born out of the post-effect of the Apocalypse. Forty years later, the mutilated land carries toxins that are still harmful to both humans and animals. The disorder on my skin is a testament to this. New-Dawn is not the only place affected. The medical practitioners invented a vaccine to help children of the new age. They named it the Lamina Syndrome—an infection that laminates against healthy skin like a dirty patch. Children are given a shot against the Syndrome as soon as they are born. In rare cases, the vaccine does not work on some children and they still catch the syndrome. Cases like mine. The disorder started as minor patches on my left hand when I was seven. Mama made herbal tea and got me medicine from the hospital where she worked as a nurse. The condition ceased for a while until I became a teenager. It waged war against my skin worse than any changes that puberty brought. Mama’s tea and medication no longer worked. I was bullied by my peers and received stares wherever I went. It got worse until I left school completely.
Lucky for me, the schools in New-Dawn only teach survival skills to help us live in our world. I could learn all that at home from Mama and the few friends that visited. I was subjected to a lot of medical examinations in an attempt to find a cure. I still have scars from painful injections, cuts and IVs. No cure has been found for this condition to this day. Only a pacifying concoction of herbs to reduce the spread of the infection. Society has tried to welcome people with my defect but the questions and staring will never cease.
The last memory I have of community school is punching the girl who insulted me. I was used to receiving worse insults. Usually, I would have walked away like a wounded puppy and curled up in a corner to cry but what triggered me was when she referred to Noble while insulting me. I realized I was in love with him as I rammed my fist into her face. She was petite and smaller than me. She did not even put up a defense because she knew that fighting back would put us both in trouble. I was punished by our tutors for instigating violence. New-Dawn encourages harmonious co-existence in the community schools. I was punished by working for the girl’s family for a month. I had to do all the duties that a Worker would have done in their household. Her family made sure that I suffered as payment for what I did to their daughter.
Noble looks like a shriveled chicken standing before a menacing predator. Usually, he looks gracefully strong and athletic in his black military garb. He is kneeling in front of Lord Vibaya. The other Warriors have already surrounded him and they point guns at him, ready to blow up his brains. He has been overpowered and his gun lies abandoned across the arena. Lord Vibaya clutches the top of his hand where Noble’s bullet touched. The rage in his eyes screams only one word; EXECUTION as penalty.
My throat is parched. I am dizzy and fight the urge to blackout as I watch all this. I am furious with Noble for being so flimsy and daring to embark on a suicide mission. I feel betrayed that he visited me prior to the tests but said nothing about this deadly ploy. Our conversations had ceased after he became a Warrior. His new status and position came with different duties. I still see more of his family. He has three younger sisters that have not yet taken the tests. The girls often come with their mother to help Mama cook and sew clothes. He gave me a talisman on the eve of the tests. A locket with a silver chain and a crystal stone dangling from its side. Noble is a mirror of his name; he is honorable and highly distinguished in his character.
He used to call me a little fairy because of the way my skin glowed in the dark. He helped me with my classes when I stopped attending the New-Dawn community school for children. He taught me how to use a dagger and other weaponry. He was my first kiss. We kissed that evening after I beat the girl who insulted me. Mama let Noble visit because he had been my best friend since childhood. While she was away, I experimented with the art of kissing with him. We share so much history and memories with each other. I am not ready to lose him too in the same way I lost my father.
Without thinking, I charge to where Lord Vibaya and the Warriors are assembled. The attention quickly diverts towards me.
“Leave him! Let him go!”
My fury makes Vibaya and the Warriors guffaw. I look so helpless in front of the men with the guns. I catch Noble’s gaze from where he is kneeling on the manicured grass. His look is beseeching me to stay away from his mess. Noble knows that I am headstrong and not one to give up easily.
“Destiny, please.” He mouths the words.
Destiny…My name glides off his mouth delicately and I nearly give up my rescue mission.
I fix my gaze on Lord Vibaya. This is the closest I have ever been with our leader. He looks feral up close. He snickers contemptuously while sizing me up.
“Get back girl.” His words are a command. There are consequences if I disobey. Yet, I stay rooted in front of him, surrounded by all the fierce Warriors.
“New-Dawn was made to be a Refuge. A haven meant for healing. But you have brought nothing but suffering and misery. The city deserves better than you.”
They all guffaw again. Their laughter is intimidating and should be the signal that I need to get away. But I am determined to put up a defense for Noble. Even if it comes with huge risk.
“Look at her! So ugly!” Vibaya spits. “Get this girl out of my sight!”
I get away at a supersonic speed before the Warriors even get close to me. I charge at Lord Vibaya, taking him by surprise, and he topples to the ground. My hands curl into a fist and I land a punch on his nose. The Warriors quickly threw me off him effortlessly. Vibaya is very angry and grabs Noble’s gun on the ground. He points the weapon at my face. He is about to pull the trigger when Noble grabs his foot and falls to the ground. The electric bulbs on the arena wall go off so that we are engulfed in total darkness. The dull moonlight does not provide enough illumination in the labyrinth of darkness. I am very easy to notice in the darkness because of my skin. The other Warriors are already attacking Noble. They call him a traitor as they beat him up. Lord Vibaya charges at me again. This time, he is determined to finish me completely.
The medical practitioners who did the tests on the Lamina’s syndrome did not fully analyze its full effect on the human body. They did not understand that the marriage of chemicals in the earth caused a mutation to one’s body and gave them supernatural abilities. I found out that there was more to my disorder after I got into trouble for beating the girl at school. Her friends had laid traps to get me and seek vengeance. I was always faster than them. Also, I had this inert ability to move objects in my mind without actually touching them. Their traps never harmed me because of my abilities. I have supersonic speed, I am telekinetic, and I glow in the dark.
Vibaya gets frustrated because I am too fast for his bullets. The Warriors cannot help him for they are busy trying to fight off the other participants who have joined the chaos. The chase games with Vibaya rage on until I halt in front of the cages with the animals. He is still resilient in his pursuit.
“Witch!” He says amidst pants. “You deserve to burn!”
I focus my telekinetic abilities on the knob of one of the cages that houses a tiger. I have been practicing this ability. Nobody knows about my strength yet. This is a part of me I have kept away from everyone.
Vibaya wastes time lashing obscenities at me. He calls me an ugly weakling and says that I should have been quarantined with my dreadful plague. I like that he is talking; It is buying me time to unlock the cage. The tiger shakes furiously at the metallic bars of its cage impatiently. It yearns for its freedom too. It growls with the urge to destroy. I do not get to see Vibaya’s shock when the tiger tears at his flesh. He pulls the gun trigger and fires a hot bullet into my chest.
Today is not the day I die. Today is the day I get to know freedom. I wake up to the sting of ethanol digging into my skin. I am lying in my bed at home. Voices echo from the living room. Mama is by my side and quickly explains; Noble and some of the Warriors brought me home. I passed out after getting shot. Vibaya was attacked by a tiger. He is fatally wounded and is relinquishing his position as leader. Nobody could explain how the tiger got out of its cage. Mama looks at me like she knows my secret. I look away because today is not the day I intend to tell her about my abilities. I have a bandage around my chest. Mama says that my skin is special because it easily self-repaired as soon as the bullet was excavated from my flesh. Noble’s gift still dangles at my neck. Mama says that I am the talk of the town and everyone is proud of my bravery. She talks animatedly and there is a twinkle in her eye.
“Today is the birth of a revolution. It is the genesis of new beginnings.”
I close my eyes and drift back into a tranquil sleep. Today is the first time in a long time I sleep happily.