“Charlotte Freeman, this court of your peers has found you guilty of a crime against the human race. Because this is your first offense and the only time you have appeared before a court, you will be given a choice in punishment,” the High Judge said. “I will get to your options shortly. Throughout this trial, you have maintained your innocence. Now that a conviction has been found, do you still maintain your innocence?”
I was not expecting to be asked this. Why would I change my story now? It doesn’t matter at this point. Considering the evidence presented, I knew I would be found guilty. I began to believe I’d done it by the time the prosecutor was done.
I closed my eyes, hoping to block out everything around me. But all I saw were flashes of memories from that night. The night that had brought me here. All I saw was the fogginess, the pain, the blood.
I opened my eyes, tears running down my cheeks.
I–like most of our society–had stayed out of trouble. This murder trial was one of only four or five that might happen this year. Murders do not happen in our society. We have gone to great lengths to create a peaceful and just civilization.
There was a time, before I was born, well before The Wall was built, when the world was chaos. Murder and rape and hate were normal between neighbors. Then came the tipping point, and society lost its grasp on law and order. Anarchy was the rule of the land until the Arrangement was created.
Now our society values peace above all else. Sheltering its people from the evil outside our walls, governing with fairness and freedom.
“Do you still maintain your innocence?” The High Judge repeated.
“I do your honor,” I said. “I see the evidence as compelling, but I did not kill my brother…”
I sobbed uncontrollably.
“That is unfortunate,” the High Judge said. “I am sure you are aware of the options available to you. For the court records, I will read them aloud. You must acknowledge to the court that you fully understand each option.”
Everyone knows the options. I’ve always known what the options were but never gave them any serious thought. I never considered it a decision I would have to make.
“I need for you to acknowledge that you understand what has been presented to you,” the High Judge said.
I looked around at the panel of judges, all staring at me, all sympathetic to my situation. By the looks on their faces, the High Judge must have repeated the question.
“I understand my choices,” I said.
“Can you please repeat them to us? We must be sure you’re able to make this decision,” one of the associate judges said.
“I can take the obvious choice of Empathy Synthesis,” I said. “I can take a place on The Wall to defend our society from The Beyond. Or I can choose to leave the city, never to return, to be banished from our society and the protection it provides.”
“Do you understand the gravity and meaning behind each of these?” One of the judges asked.
“I do,” I said. Everyone does. Parents teach their children these choices from early childhood. They use them to scare their children into behaving well. Santa used to bring coal if you were bad, now you get sent to die on The Wall.
“You said Empathy Synthesis was the obvious choice,” one of the judges said. “Are you clear on what this involves? This is not always the most obvious choice for everyone.”
“I am, your honor,” I said.
But was I clear? Why wouldn’t that be the obvious choice to everyone? It was the only way to ensure you didn’t die an untimely death. It’s not easy or pleasant or painless, but you continued living. That was the goal, right?
“I–I–um… why wouldn’t that be the obvious choice, your honor?” I asked.
“The process is… challenging. Your mind and body will be stretched and pushed to its limits. You will not be the same person you are today. You will be… changed.”
How changed? I will still be me…
Of all the stories I’d heard, everyone returned home happier and healthier. It seemed like a good thing.
The judge must have read the confusion on my face.
“You will be taken into custody–as you know–and you will begin therapy with several of The Society’s Psychologists. When you are prepared, you will begin a series of psychedelic enhance therapy sessions of varying lengths and intensity. Finally, you will also be tasked with caring for our inInopia to relearn empathy for those around you.”
Intellectually I knew the process. I assumed the psychedelic enhanced therapy would be challenging, but the hardest part would be caring for the inInopia. The Society saw it as their responsibility to care for the people who cannot care for themselves. In our seventh year of school, we were required to spend time with the inInopia. The work I did during that time was hard. Although I think I learned a lot, I did not enjoy it. I always assumed Empathy Synthesis would be a more intense version.
“If you choose The Wall,” another associate judge said. “You will be cared for. You will be required to spend at least three years defending our home. You will be regarded highly for your service. Upon completion of your duty, we will assist you in rejoining society. You will receive any needed psychological therapy, placement in a home–if needed, and assistance in finding a job.”
Duty on The Wall also had other consequences the associate judge conveniently left out. The majority sent there, never return. The likelihood of my surviving three years was low. The people who do survive their time rarely make it back into everyday society. Many join the inInopia and are unable to care for themselves for the rest of their lives. Seeing The Beyond, fighting what is beyond The Wall, breaks people’s minds, and they cannot recover.
“And for some…” the High Judge said. “For some, leaving our society is the best option for them. Some cannot live by The Society’s standards or feel confined by our walls. Leaving is always your option.”
Leaving was not an option. I would not survive outside the walls of this city. The Beyond would be too much for me.
Could I choose Synthesis or The Wall and return to find who is responsible for Henry’s murder?
What if I killed my brother? What if Synthesis somehow reveals I am a murderer? Could I live with myself? Do I think I am capable enough to survive The Wall and still come back from it?
“Have you made a decision, Charlotte?” The High Judge asked.
“I–” a sob cut me off. I tried to choke it down.
“I–I choose…” I scanned the panel of judges and looked to the jury that represents The Society. I looked down at my shaking hands and saw the blood still stained there, long washed away. Taking a deep breath, I set my shoulders to show confidence in my decision.
“I choose to leave.”
The High Judge sat back in her chair shocked.
It was obvious no one in the room expected me to leave. No stable, productive member of society ever chooses to leave. When a news report came out that someone had chosen or requested to leave, they always matched a certain stereotype. Everyone thought the same thing. But we do not speak about stereotypes.
The room, which was previously in total order–silence, everyone spoke in turn, no one moved unnecessarily–erupted into chaos. The associate judges looked at each other, unsure what to do next. The jury whispered and the people seated behind me shuffled and grunted to themselves.
Are they going to try to talk me out of my decision? It seemed that when people chose to leave, that was it. There was no turning back, no changing your mind, and no attempt at convincing you to stay. An attitude of “if you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here.”
This always felt hypocritical of our society to me.
“Please be quiet,” the High Judge said over the noise of the room. “Silence! There will be order in the court.”
The High Judge looked around the room, shuffling in her chair above me until the auditorium was silent again.
“I–we need to be sure of your response. Please repeat your choice for the court,” the High Judge said.
Was this an opportunity to change my mind? Do innocent people banish themselves to an early death? Could I say something different and the court ignore my request to leave? This must be a loophole for people like me, people that looked sane, people that looked like they belong.
I looked around the room. I saw my mom for the first time since the proceedings started. I wasn’t able to look her in the eye. I was convicted of killing her only son. She looked terrified, hurt, sad. I don’t know if she believed I was innocent, but I could see her heart breaking again. It didn’t matter if she thought I was innocent, she was losing her only living child.
“Ms. Freeman, we need for you to repeat your decision,” the High Judge said. “Will you take Empathy Synthesis, defend The Wall, or leave The Society?”
“I choose…” I looked at my mother again, tears running down our cheeks. “I choose to leave. I choose to leave The Society and live outside.”
The High Judge shook her head as the grumblings around the room rose and settled faster than the first time.
“Very well. Your decision has been made. I am sad to see one of our children leave, but these are the laws we have all agreed to uphold,” the High Judge said folding her hands in front of her and leaning on her elbows. “Bailiff, please escort Ms. Freeman from the court. We will begin gate preparations immediately.”
The bailiff stepped forward. He was old–maybe in his 70s–and warm and kind looking. He looked sad as he smiled at me.
The High Judge reached for her gavel, “The murder trial of Henry Freeman is now adjourned.”
I didn’t know what to expect next as the Bailiff walked with me, his hand resting gently, almost fatherly, on my shoulder. I assumed I would be escorted directly to the gate and sent on my way; no goodbyes to my friends and family and no supplies to help me survive.
“I’m sad to see you leave,” the bailiff whispered as we left the auditorium. “I am always sad to lose a friend.”
I looked at him confused. Did I know him?
“We don’t officially know each other,” he said smiling down at me. “I consider all my neighbors, all the people within The Wall, my friends.”
This made me cry even harder.
“Once you are through the gates, you will not receive any assistance from The Society. You will be completely cut off,” he said as he led me through the hallways of the courthouse. “But once outside, look for a man called Pax Hampton. I do not know if he is still alive, but if he is, he will help you. He is a good man, and he will look after you until you can get on your feet and able to take care of yourself.”
“Thank you but…” I sobbed uncontrollably. I doubted I would survive long enough to find anyone.
He escorted me to a small windowless room where I waited in silence. I had no idea how long I waited. It felt like hours, but it could have been minutes. My mind jumped continuously, from fear of being outside The Wall to my mother’s face as I made my decision to the flashes of memories from the night Henry died.
The door swung open and my mother walked in with a bag on her shoulder.
“Mom! I am so sorry for–” I started.
“No! Don’t apologize. Your decision has been made. I don’t understand it nor have any idea what you are going through,” she said with wet cheeks. “I love you dearly. I am heartbroken to be losing another child, but you did what you felt you had to do.”
“I love you. I–I didn’t kill Henry,” I said.
“I know, I know,” she said pulling me close. “I brought a few things from home. They told me you can take whatever you can carry. I’ll let you decide what you want to take.”
She handed me the bag. It had pictures of our family, keepsakes from my childhood, my favorite book, and some canned foods.
“They will give you some supplies as you leave the gate, but I don’t know what you will see out there. All I know are the horror stories we tell each other. You may not want to carry any of this, but I wanted you to have the option.”
The door opened again and two guards walked in.
“It’s time,” one of them said, not menacing, but not as kind as the bailiff.
“Mom, I can’t take these pictures. Did you leave any for yourself?” I said.
“I have the sweetest memories of my family–that’s all I need. Take them all, maybe it will bring you some comfort.”
I pulled the backpack on and hugged her, crying into her shoulder.
“We need to go,” one of the guards said. “We cannot keep the gate prepped for opening for too long.”
“I’m sorry. I am so sorry,” I said.
“I love you. Be careful,” she said, fighting back a sob.
We released each other, and I was escorted down a hallway and onto a sunny street. A crowd had gathered along the only road out of the city. It was uncomfortably quiet for the number of people standing around. Not silent, but the volume did not fit the crowd.
As the two guards walked behind me, the two hundred foot wall bordering our city loomed ahead of us. No one said anything to me as we walked down the street. There were looks of concern but some looks of disgust. Some people cried as much as my mom and I had.
Part of me wanted to run, maybe I could break through the line of people and hide out in the city. This had to be the wrong choice. I’d made a huge mistake. What was I thinking? Why did I do this to myself?
Three guards stood in front of the gate waiting for me and the two other guards behind me. All five had weapons drawn ready and alert but with the barrels to the ground. When we were close enough, two of the guards aimed their weapons at the gate and two turned to face the crowd. The fifth went to a keypad and typed in a command. I stood in the center, hugging my chest, pulling the backpack closer to my body.
The small door slid open. I didn’t know what to expect to see on the other side, but I did not anticipate seeing the High Judge standing in a small room. The fifth guard–the one who opened the gate–escorted me in but remained outside with the other four guards. Inside was a table with jugs of water, a stack of freeze-dried food packs, and a large knife.
“This is all the help I can offer you,” the High Judge said. “Once you are on the other side of The Wall you will be on your own. We may be unable to support you, but we want you to survive.”
I put my hand on one of the jugs of water. I was thankful for the supplies, but concerned I would be unable to carry everything.
“We do not have much time. You need to pack as much as you can carry and leave everything else,” she said. “If you need to leave anything your mother gave you I will personally return it to her.”
I packed everything I could, leaving the book my mother gave me but kept everything else. There were still jugs of water I couldn’t fit, so I carried one in each hand. If I was attacked or had to run as soon as I stepped out of the gate I would be done for–a risk I figured I had to take.
The High Judge led me through a series of hallways winding through the base of The Wall. I had no idea how thick The Wall was, but it took several minutes to come to a room with a group of heavily armed guards waiting for us.
“This is where I leave you, Charlotte,” the High Judge said. “It saddens me to see you go, but I wish you the best of luck. I hope you find the world on the other side of our Wall is not as harsh as we believe it to be.”
“Thank you,” I said and hugged her. It was a reflexive response and caught her off guard. I’m not sure why I did it, but when she hugged me back it gave me a huge sense of calm.
A heavy door slid closed behind the High Judge as she left the room. The guards took up a position surrounding me, rifles aimed at the metal door ahead of us. One of them called out a command I could not understand. All of them shuffled to brace themselves as the large door began to slowly open.
Light flooded the room, and for a moment I couldn’t see anything. The door came to a loud stop and the guards motioned for me to exit.
“Ms. Freeman, this is your exit,” one of them said behind me when I froze. “We do not want to, but we will force you through the door if needed.”
I stepped forward, my eyes adjusting. On the other side was The Beyond, a large grassy field and a dense forest. It was beautiful. I’d only ever seen pictures of the old world that looked like this. I approached the edge of the door and looked both ways. All I could see in either direction was forest and Wall. The guards in the room shuffled forward with me closing in on the door as we got closer.
I stepped out on the soft grass, the warm sun on my face, a cool breeze. The air smelled fresh.
“Good luck,” one of the guards said and the door slid closed.
That was it. That was the severing from The Society, from the only life I knew.
I just stood and looked around me in awe of how beautiful The Beyond was–not at all what I was expecting to see. No marauders or roving gangs or man-eating beasts. Just beauty and silence and calm.
“Hey! Hey, can you hear me?” I heard, looking around me for the source.
“Up here,” the voice yelled again. I looked up and could see the tiny dot of someone’s head at the top of The Wall.
“It looks like there is a small group of buildings a few miles off if you walk straight out from the gate,” the person said. “I don’t know what you’ll find there or what you have to go through to get there, but it might be a place to camp.”
I looked in the direction the person was indicating. Several hundred feet of open field, then forest so dense I would have to walk sideways to get through.
“Thank you,” I yelled back up. I readjusted my backpack and my grip on the heavy water jugs and started walking.
At least it was something. I could have camped at the door and waited for the next person to be banished from our society and had a companion. But that could be months from now, and I didn’t know if this was the only gate. What if they sent people out at different gates?
I slid between two trees at the edge of the forest, and five steps in I could no longer see The Wall. That world was gone now. I was on my own.