Everything becomes white. As her eyes adjust to the brightness, Eva feels before she sees the thousands of people in the arena. The noise of cheering, clapping and whistling reverberates through her body. Coming from all around her, above and below is a solid sound circling and trapping, like an invisible wave passing through her. For a second, she is taken by surprise by its power. But just as fast as it takes her in, she snaps out of it.
She has landed in the upper level of the arena in front of the podium. Rows and rows of yellow seats, occupied by a crowd of grey overalls. A sea of tiny grey dots on a yellow sheet of paper. A crowd, exuding a rancid smell of bodily odours as they rub shoulders in their seats, but they are her chance to escape. She can blend in; she’ll disappear, a speck of grey in the crowd.
Eva sees an empty seat a few rows below her, separated from the alleyway by only one occupied seat. She could make it, maybe. A thin layer of water has gathered on the plastic mesh covering the steps, and as she runs down the slippery path, she’s careful not to lose her balance. The air is saturated by the water particles of another imminent downpour. She stops at the chair where the row starts. A scrawny woman is blocking her way into the row.
Hypnotized by the show, the woman barely registers Eva as she slides past. Murmuring excuses she doesn’t hear, Eva slides her body between the chairs and hops over the woman’s legs, who doesn’t move them. As Eva makes her way through, she glances behind her. The Safekeeper appears at the door. Eva quickly lowers herself down to the seat, to the left of a man with long hair and a long beard that sits on its belly. He notices her at the last moment.
“Hey, don’t sit here.”
“Sorry, just a minute.”
“I just need a minute. Please.”
“Get another seat for your sorry ass. You can’t just come late and sit wherever you want.” He raises his voice, trying to bring the people around to his outrage. A good law-abiding citizen denied his rights. “I’ve been queueing since dawn.”
Two people from the row above start looking at the man. Eva sees the Safekeeper, calm and searching, go towards another guard patrolling the Stadium in a black-plated uniform. She tucks down in her seat a bit more. The man hasn’t missed a bit of what’s Eva’s doing. He might be filthy, but he’s not stupid.
“I see. Little poppet hiding, aye?” And he grabs her collar, ready to pull her up to the Safekeeper’s attention.
Eva grabs a pill in her pocket. She opens and closes her hand in front of the man.
He smiles coyly and sits down again. He releases his grip on Eva’s collar and pretends to flatten the creases he just made
“Oh… lovely. Thank you. Why don’t you make it two?”
“Yeah? Then you can shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.” He starts to stand up again. The two Safekeepers are coming up the alleyway towards Eva. The male guard has his eyes on the screen of his handheld scanner, pointing it through the rows.
Eva wants to poke the man’s eyes out. “Get down. You’ll only get them when I leave.”
“Okay, poppet. I’m loving your company already. Mine’s worth two pills.” He laughs.
She leans back on her chair, pretending to be focused on the show in front of her but alert to her peripheral vision.
In the middle of the stage they have raised the Eggs, next to each other, rows and rows of giant glass bubbles. It would be beautiful if it were just that, an infinity of empty oversized balloons with the light hitting the transparent surface creating speckles of colourful rays. The purity of their perfectly spherical shape against the circular layout of the arena is designed to captivate the audience.
Across the field, behind the stage, the child performers—boys and girls, one after another—each hold a book in their lap. Through the Speakerphone, a single note peals through the Stadium. It is their cue. They all stand up at the same time, and raise their books over their head. Following a tempo only known by them, they turn the pages. From the opposite side of the Stadium, the crowd of children is transformed into a gigantic display looking like a LED screen. Each page of the book is a dot, and the words made of these multiple spots say: “CRIME AGAINST SCIENCE IS A CRIME AGAINST ZEALANDIA.”
A long procession exits the tunnel in the middle of the arena. Safekeepers leading prisoners, one after another. These men and women wear head-to-toe capes covering their limbs and body and carry painted signs attached to their necks. Their emaciated faces poke out from large cloaks, like human puppets. On the Speakerphone, a single note is repeated like a Morse code: two long, one short, one long, one short. The pulsation inside the Stadium slows down, the screams recede. The agitation gives place to a low hum as a wave of anticipation rolls over in the amphitheatre.
Eva reads “ScienceSceptic” and “Religious” on a young woman with glasses and a man with darker skin and curly hair. All of the Prisoners are coming into the middle of the arena. As the Prisoners pass in front of her eyes, she sees the dread in all of their faces: the “CounterRevolutionist,” “Unmarked, “TruthTerrorist,” “Deserter”… all of them only guilty of the crime of thinking for themselves.
Next to Eva, the woman uses her hands like a megaphone and shouts: “Traitors! Assholes.” Eva, sick to her stomach, wants to go. The queue of Prisoners and Safekeepers undulates in the pathway in front of the Eggs like a crawling caterpillar, until it reaches the final row and the last Egg. The line stops; each Egg has a prisoner in front of it, and each prisoner, a Safekeeper.
The man looks at Eva with hungry eyes. “Now’s the best part. Does it tickle you in strange places?”
“Watch what you’re saying, poppet. You just strike me as a ScienceSceptic.”
“That’s why you’re hiding? I could report you.”
“You won’t have anything if I get arrested.”
“Haha, that’s right. I better keep you warm next to me then.”
In the arena, the perfect spheres break up as, in each of them, a rectangle of glass tears up and slides sideways. The Safekeepers, in one swift motion, detach the knots in the back of the capes which fall to the ground. Underneath the robes, the victims are naked. Squirming like worms, they try to hide their private parts, stripped, till their last moment, of dignity. The Safekeepers push them inside the Eggs.
Before the Rise, the arena was used for rugby and soccer games and drew sports crowds. In those days, the Stadium heard joys and disappointments. Today is different. It’s like the Stadium is filled with one creature that expels a guttural scream from its innards. The audience tramples their feet, cries, howls. The tension is at its highest.
Eva is nauseous. She closes her eyes, trying to make everything disappear. Even then, she sees the victims in front of her: the scholarly woman, the man of faith, the older man with a white beard, the adolescent who couldn’t stop screaming. And all the others: the mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, teachers, nurses, workers. All of the parts of a couple, a family, a community.
She opens her eyes again. In the background, she sees the door closing behind the Prisoners. But what makes her stop is the Safekeeper moving towards the square of rows she’s sitting in. She needs to go. She leaps forward to her left, but the man is blocking her exit.
“Hey, not so fast, poppet.”