Peter Elworth sat, bored, at his desk, dreaming ... dreaming of sunshine. Looking out of the lone classroom window, the sickly leaves of the gnarled old Roan tree caught his eye as they fluttered against the steely sky.
‘Peter, the duty of every citizen is...?’ No response.
‘Peter...answer the question!’ Mr. Corvin slowly, reverently, placed his red bound master copy of ‘Edictus Permianus’ on his desk, not once shifting his eyes off his student. The classroom, as one, turned to look at Peter as he pulled his gaze from the window to confront reality.
‘Um...eh...question... sir?’ A puzzled Peter asked.
’The duty of every citizen is... Peter?’ Mr. Corvin’s voice was hard at the edges, mouth moist at the corners. Peter paused, just long enough to induce a quivering twitch in Mr. Corvin’s left eye.
‘The duty of every citizen is to futilely waste away, bleeding their all into the belly of the state, until they finally succumb to the pressures of this unnatural condit...’
‘Enough...’ Mr. Corvin howled, the knuckles of each hand yellowing in a tight grip about the edge of his desk ‘...Enough...’ his face now taut and white, words slipping slowly over clenched teeth and strained lips. The desk juddered ever so slightly, so that a stylus rolled unnoticed, falling to the stiff off-black industrial carpet.
’...I have had enough of this...of you, take yourself to the Prefect’s office and explain to them your...your impertinence...out...out!’ Peter rose slowly from his chair and walked solemnly out through the chipped and peeling doorway.
’The duty of every citizen is...Turnka?’ Mr. Corvin, voice shaking, asked a small bespectacled boy in the front row. Turnka stood, head bowed, ‘The... the duty of every citizen is... is to fervently uphold the glory of Permia, obey and...and maintain the security of the state. To give their work...um...their work ceaselessly and unquestioningly...’
Turnka’s droning voice faded as Peter made his way slowly to the Prefect’s office, his footsteps a dull echo in the hallway.
Peter had endured the twenty-minute tirade in stiff silence letting the dogma wash over him to drift with the draft unheeded out through the chill cracks in the window frame.
’Is that understood Peter?’ The Prefect asked, red-faced, as they scrolled randomly through Peter’s permanent record. ’Yes sir, sir!’ Peter intoned lifelessly, how could he even begin to care about the glories of the state when all he had ever seen was a sad city collapsing in on itself.
’So?’ The Prefect asked.
’Get out of your sight sir?’ Peter inquired. 'Out!’ Spittle flies from trembling lips leaving dark speckles on the stiffly pressed uniform. Peter turned wordlessly on his heel and left.
Outside the training center the evening shadows had lengthened somewhat, making sundials of buildings and trees. He made his way to Eisenrich St to wait for Charlotte to finish her day in the girls center. Her building sat like a fat H across the street from Victory park, where the rusted swings creaked forlornly in the growing breeze. A cleaner-drone turned the corner, whipping the early leaf-fall into a wet frenzy with its spinning brushes, as it tried in vain to keep the streets clean, its electric motor purring like a happy cat. Somewhere inside the building a loud buzzer sounded, burrzz, burrrrzz, burrzz and on it went. The students flowed down the stairs and out from beneath the crossbar of that squat H,a slow rolling wave of gun-barrel coloured uniforms. It wasn’t difficult to pick her out amongst the monochrome throng. Her face alone was lifted to the sky, as if reading mystical messages in the shafts of sharp light cutting through the gloomy sky. Charlotte Cothe also moved differently, as if somehow she was afloat. Strong and lithe in movement, almost skipping, down the blue basalt steps and faster still once she caught his eye. Peter grinned despite himself.
’You’ve been here long?’ She asked, a little frown crossing her forehead as she pulled a loose wisp of hair out of her eyes.
’Kind of, um, I had a little trouble with the crow again!’
’Corvin?’ She asked, wide eyed at first, then smiling. 'Corvin is an old fanatical Burndegardian to the core. You’re right to ignore that one, trust me. He’d have you at the front digging defences all winter long...to make a man of you!’ She spat the last few words in jest and tugged at the sleeve of his mud-brown uniform, drawing him closer.
He gave her a smile, which she took, along with his hand, as they crossed the road to the derelict park with its creaking swings and rain puddled paths. 'It’s on my permanent record...' this said almost to himself, before he added with a light tug of her hand ’...Burndegardian, are you sure that’s a proper term?’
'It is now!' Charlotte quipped and planted a swift kiss on his wind-burnt cheek, just short of his lips. Peter stopped, stunned, intensely aware of the soft warmth of her lips, her hand in his, slim figure mere inches from his bony frame.
She whispered rapidly, close to his ear. ‘I have to go...’ The last of the warmth from her kiss snatched away by both words and wind. '...I’m sorry really I am...' She squeezed his fingers briefly ‘...but I promised my Nana that I would help get her apartment ready for summer. See you tomorrow, yes?’ Again, the wayward tress was brushed out of her eyes.
'Let me walk you to the transport...I...' he offered, but they both knew he couldn’t. He felt her hand slip from his fingers and the chill air moved in to take its place. She stepped away from him, spinning about to avoid a puddle in her path, sending him a soft smile good bye.
'I...sure, yeah, of course... see you tomorrow!' Peter replied, the last a little too fast, tugging his fingers through his forelock and swallowing the words that rang from his heart, I love you. Spell broken. Mr. Cothe, Charlotte’s father, would never approve. Vergan Cothe was President Burndegard’s personal secretary and Peter Elworth was...well, Peter was nobody. He turned for home. On reaching the roadside he turned and took a long look back as she walked the last few steps to the waiting transport. A deep breath welled up within him only to be puffed slowly out between pursed lips.
’I’ll see you tomorrow,’ he said to himself, with a firm nod of his head. He stepped out onto the cross-way and was struck by the cleaner-drone as it rounded the corner. He lost consciousness to the beat of the dull smack of impact. The drone crumpled about him in a ragged embrace, tumbling them both across the street in a tangled wreckage of plastic, metal and rent flesh.