Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2020 finalist, Ariel Zhang! Ariel finished 6th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Fantastic Birds” Our judges loved Ariel’s clever use of formatting.
<input: open your eyes>
I flinched, startled by the sudden flash of instructions before my eyes. 6 AM. My body needed just one more minute, hidden in the cozy white sheets of my bed, but my mind jolted myself awake.
The implant had worked.
Here, they call it Perfectionating.
Before age twenty-one, you go to “Preparatory School” to understand the rudimentary facts <add: “of our beautiful society”>. Teaches you to show love for Our Safe Place and how much the President loves you. Sit in a classroom with forty other students while a video about everything we need to know plays on the whiteboard–no teachers. Sixteen hours of watching videos, sixteen hours of brainwashing. No one asks any questions. No one can ask any questions.
<add: “Nothing you can do about that.”>
Once you turn twenty-one, you undergo a series of “surgical implants” where a computer chip is forced into your brain so that you can become a “Perfecton.” Then, you go out “into the wild unknown and raise a proud family of your own” <cite: the President>. An endless cycle.
<add: “Nothing you can do about that.”>
With the computer chip, you know everything. “Omniscient Perfection,” they say. “Mindless Robots,” I think. <_error-viewpoint_–DELETE–insert: “It’s great!”>
A week after the implant, you were escorted into a meeting of things you should know before going into the wild. “The Meeting.”
Now, it’s my time.
Effortlessly, I sat up and slipped into my Perfecton clothes and smoothly walked to the meeting hall without turning the wrong corner, not once.
My legs knew the way, but my brain didn’t.
“Nothing I can do about that.”
I pulled open the two red doors and looked past into the vast hall. The hollow air drowned me in a world of perfection. I looked to my right, left, up, and down–the one hundred or so doors casting down dark silhouettes dancing to the midnight song.
I suddenly felt so scared in this world I no longer know.
<_error-viewpoint_–DELETE–insert: “I take a deep breath and understand;
this is the feeling of freedom.”>
Walking down a few stories and pulling open a tiny blue door, I scurried up the endless, forward-motion stairs along the aisles and sat down in my seat. Breathing heavily, I crammed my hand into my pocket, digging desperately around for my Pod. No. Not there. I frantically checked my left pocket. Not there either. My mind jumped around, needing it, my Pod, to be here with me now. I let out a short cry as I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
Everything is happening too fast.
<add: “I live in a beautiful society filled with wonder and motion.”>
I felt the air blow around me, swiftly, like a swan in disguise, leaping.
I breathed my first breath that I have truly breathed in a long, long while.
I opened my eyes. The world fell silent.
I was awake.
My focus turned to the people around me.
All around me sat dull, colorless people–staring down to the floor, eyes glued on their Pods, without saying a word.
I glanced over to a screen on my left.
Statement: Each and every one of you has so much potential. We are here for you to be your maximum selves. You deserve the best, so you are the best. And if you just can’t, that is not your fault. Look to those around you–their greed and jealousy entrapping you from who you are meant to be. We, as Our Safe Place’s proud leaders moving our future forward, are always there for you. You are special. You are unique. Don’t let those envious and sinister ones around you put you down. You are a true Perfecton.
True or False?
I then looked at the guy and realized how troubled he looked. So I leaned in and whispered to him, “True.”
He glared at me and snorted, then slammed his finger down on the false button.
You are wrong
The previous statement is true.
-2 Perfecton points.
He quickly muttered, “Well that’s your fault.”
“No it is not–
<_error-viewpoint_–DELETE–insert: “Yes it is my fault.”>
My body froze as I slammed myself back into my chair.
Technology. Media. Acceptance.
On my right sat a gentle yet spirited girl–you can tell from the way her eyes, brown and emerald green, brightened in the light, giving life a deeper meaning. The way her hazel brown hair brushed back into a bun, and the way her hands, while crocheting (yes, crocheting!), seemed to conduct an invisible orchestra, gently singing all the symphonies of the world. You can see, by just the way she sat, that she was different from most. Full of life.
Then I saw what she was wearing.
Once you undergo the implant, all Perfectons are forced to wear a single, staid uniform: Ladies with a white blouse and blue plaid skirts. Gentlemen with a black tuxedo. But the girl was wearing a blue dress, like the color of the limitless sky with hundreds after thousands after millions of birds, calling to the stars…
Like a bird…
I quickly averted my eyes away and didn’t look anywhere else until the meeting began.
When all 974 people were seated, the President walked in. The silence enclosed around us, wrapping us together like a cold family. His deep voice echoed throughout the grand hall and rang in my ears, leaving all but one, me, in awe: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome, welcome!”
Empty, mindless applause boomed.
“Why are we, all of us together, gathered here today? Don’t ask why. We’ll tell you. The answer is simple: it’s because we are working and striving together to create a community. A community full of wonder. A community full of life. A community full of imagination. A community full of who we are.
“So, what is an important aspect to keep this perfect, inspirational community running? How do we maintain our society? Well that too, is quite simple.
“Here, you see,” the President continued, “is an example of interference with our society. Do we want this? No.” The girl with the different clothing shrieked and suddenly appeared at the front of the room.
“Look at her. So disrespectful. Just going about her own ways and dressing differently in this shade of blue disobedience, not even caring about our community.
“So, what do we do with these ignorant, selfish people interfering with our society? The answer is simple. Extermination.”
I knew this was going to happen. I couldn’t look at her. I needed to close my eyes, but the eyes just wouldn’t close. The implant…
And there, 973 people sat, watching and anticipating what was going to happen next. I looked around and saw these mechanical people. No one bothered to say anything or to do anything. I watched the helpless girl. Those deep, brown-green eyes, stared straight into me. But in the light, I saw something more.
In her eyes, I saw the world.
I saw the biting wind howling inside the deepest canyons, the blinding mists arching above the snow-capped mountains, the forest-green trees rooting it’s way up through the earth, and the scorching deserts of fire and unrest.
She knew. And she wasn’t scared.
She just needed to see the stars again.
“Nothing I can do about that. …either.”
As workers extracted the girl from the floor, the President ignored them and kept on talking.
“Why now, don’t look in disgust, pity for the girl. She is a disgrace to our society. She ruined it all. She is selfish and does not care for a single one of you in this hall! We have a name for those who interfere with our society: Enemy.”
The words “Enemy” flashed through my head, slashing a scar across my face, and everything came back to me. The story that was passed down generations from my line. The secret story. The story of truths. The story of us.
“Come, my child.”
“Come. Sit on my lap. You see, Dermot, let’s play a game…”
“Shh… the game is to see how long you can not say a word. Starting now. Okay? Let’s see how long you can not say anything for.”
“And, one more rule. You must remember what I tell you today forever, because Grandpa may never get to tell it to you again.”
I nodded eagerly once more.
Then he paused as if embracing himself for something pounding like a boulder in his chest.
And he began.
“Once, in a place far far away, there was a planet called Earth. Earth was home to many Humans. Humans were just like us with ten fingers and ten toes. Most of all, Humans lived a free life. They could say or do anything they wanted. They reached the moon and saw nothing as the limit. Free like a bird in the sky. Soaring, gliding, to be whoever they are. Then, one day, everything changed. You see, Dermot, the only time that the world will gain peace is when everyone is dead. If there are people, there is conflict. Sixteen years of conflict. Sixteen years of blood, sorrow, and fear. The war of the two sides raged on. All knew that only one side could last. The ending was just a flip of a coin, lucky or unlucky. Unlucky won. Humans, they reached the moon and saw their homes as the limit. Free like a bird in a cage. Trapped, limited, to who they’re assigned. Humans–were they Humans anymore? No, Perfectons. More rules and bars set in, and the cage was nothing but a metal box with no more than a slit of future.”
From far away, I heard the sirens.
My grandpa quickened his pace.
“But, one day, a bird escaped. He stretched his wings and shook his cage, and the metal bars broke free! He called and called his freedom song, flapped and flapped his wings of pride, and he took off into the sky, heading towards Mars this time! The others watched through their little slits and saw the bird take off into the vast yet beautiful unknown. One by one, they shook, rumbled, and broke free, taking off with the one before them.”
The sirens stopped by my house.
“The sky was full of birds. Birds of all sizes and all colors. Some viewed them as birds of enemies. Birds of selfishness. Birds of despise. But amongst each other, they knew deeply they were birds of beauty. Birds of us.”
Three burly people broke the door open and grabbed my grandpa,
and pressed him outside.
But my grandpa showed no resistance.
“Be the first bird,”
he had said.
Those were the last words he ever said to me.
“Be the first bird.”
The President’s voice scattered my thoughts. “These selfish people who don’t care for our community are gone, so what’s next? Don’t panic. We, as a considerate and caring family, thought about this situation already.”
I felt a sharp pierce in my shoulder, and I saw a card attached to my sleeve. Attached forever.
The President continued, “Those card palettes all of you received are your identification cards. Those will help you know your place in this intricate <_code/too-complex/_–block: “intricate”; translate “good, good”> good, good society. Look. The first line–your name. Simple. The second line–your call number. Don’t be confused; we as a community are thrilled to help. It’s simple: this is the code you’ll be addressed by.”
I looked at my code: D#3927. I glanced at other people’s: A#1023, F#9586, B#3120, and so on. Everything so seemingly random.
A low yet silent disapproval shot up from the audience, “You mean classification system.”
The crowd flinched at once, like scrambling mice, as the tiny blue door burst open and two officials marched in, wrestling the boy outside. He screamed and kicked and tried to scramble free, desperately, but we were all deaf to the calls of humanity.
The officials could have just killed him then.
But they didn’t.
Because it wasn’t the death of this boy that mattered. It was its impact.
Just before the door could fully slam shut, I saw a crowd. A crowd of Perfectons anticipating his death. A crowd of Perfectons that knew too well that this could happen to them.
<add: “I am beautiful. I deserve myself.
And all those who try and interfere deserve to die.>
“The third line,” the President shouted, spraying a sheet of ice over the audience’s unrest, “is your role in our community!”
This is a classification system.
I looked back at my code. D#3927. Rank D. Number 3927.
The letters are ranks. And we are products. A copy of one after the other.
“The fourth line,” the President declared, quickly again, making the ice now thick and impenetrable, “indicates your job–your function–in our running and running society!”
Cashier, 52nd Building, 80th Street; Shifts 7 AM – 11 PM
Then I realized my whole future was ruined.
I could never be what I wanted to be.
I wanted to be an author, writing all the great stories around the world–Our Earth.
I wanted to be a conductor, conducting the milky-opal concertos, symphonies that touched everything with endless wonder, and slowly-stirring sonatas like autumn leaves while gliding my baton over the world.
I wanted to be a cook with sizzling pans, pantries full of cakes, and wisps of whipped cream on my face.
Those were the things I wanted to be.
But I couldn’t.
I have to be a cashier.
So this was how they kept everything under control.
Not only did they exterminate all “enemies,”
but also they exterminated all dreams.
They took them,
and buried them,
leaving me with nothing but a cashier.
And there’s nothing I can do about that.
<_error-viewpoint_–DELETE–insert: “I love being a cashier and want to be one my entire life! Wow! The President knows me goodly!
How most good! The President very good, I like.”>
I felt myself sinking into my chair like some force was pulling me deeper and deeper under the earth. For the first time in 21 years, I felt weak. People that I didn’t even know determined my future. Not just my future, but our future. The room was silent, but not like a numb, cold silence in the beginning. This was a sulky silence. A heavy silence.
“Now that you understand your place in our community,” the President’s voice breached the wall of silence, “let’s take a look at how to be a good contributor, bringing good and wonder into our society amongst each other. How to be a real Perfecton.” My implant detected a signal. It was the notecard for the speech. The notecard rooted its way into my brain, nesting and carving a spot just for itself and nothing else.
“Let’s explore some good traits of a Perfecton.
“You are obedient and follow the rules. You listen and follow everything we tell you. We’ll tell you the right thing to do.
“You are a worker, not a thinker. Thinking is nothing–worthless. If you think or if you question, you are worth nothing at all. Who has time to think or question in this vast world of knowledge, space, and imagination? Work, don’t think! Just do it.
“You are inspired. Look at those young Officials always by your side, and think about their courage to do something so amazing for our community.
“You do good for the community. We are all contributing factors in our society. Look at the Officials as they provide support for us, making our lives harmonious. Listen, work, inspire, be.
“Most importantly, remember that we care. Because of us, you are free and safe, like a bird soaring in Our Safe Place. Don’t be scared. Say it out loud, like you are proud. Remember, all of you Perfectons sitting out there are contributors to our society. You are the gears that keep this society running. You make a difference. You are the core of our community. Remember your duty as a Perfecton. Remember what makes you a Perfecton. Once it is ingrained in your mind, you will be a true Perfecton.
“However, it’s a pity that not everyone is a real Perfecton. Some are greedy, egocentric beings. They simply don’t care about our society or the harms they do by violating simple rules. Think about those people. A disgrace. So what do we do when we see those selfish things? Yes, right. We report them to our Officials, and they help us regain peace in our world again.
“But, I believe that all of you will be good contributors. I believe that no one here will betray our community. I believe that no one here will destroy my years of effort to raise you.” The President paused, and his eyes ranged over us. His voice carried charisma and power as he declared, “I believe all of you are true Perfectons!”
With the final words of encouragement, the hall once more resounded with applause and cheering. I looked around and saw their supportive faces, so naive and gullible. No one showed any resentment. But I secretly frowned inside.
This isn’t right. They don’t care about us at all.
They’re just telling us what to be,
what to become,
and what to do.
We’re just chess pieces in their game.
<_error-viewpoint_–DELETE–insert: “What a great great more good speech!
The President loves us much! I love much the Great President!”>
The President doesn’t care about us at all.
Ever since I breathed my first breath,
it was in the hands of the President.
And until I die, I will always be under his palm.
<_error-viewpoint_–DELETE–insert: Great great!
I love living in a controlled life I lov–
I’m not a piece, I’m not a gear, I AM HUMAN.
I waited for the implant to block out those thoughts. I waited. But it didn’t. I waited. But it… didn’t.
I… I won.
And I didn’t just win the implant.
I won Our Safe Place.
I won the President.
maybe there is something I can do.
The gong for 12:00 PM sounded, and the meeting was over. I waited patiently for a Q&A afterward, only to find my thoughts unimaginable.
Q&A, a place for us to question.
I saw the Perfectons around me pack their things and leave, but I felt something was wrong. I couldn’t leave with nothing. My pump of energy from winning suddenly gave me the courage. The courage I craved a long time ago. The Courage we craved a long time ago. Long before the Meeting, long before the humanity-hungry President ate away our individuality, long before technology put walls between everyone, long before Officials ingrained fear into our minds. Be the first bird, My grandfather had said. Be the first bird.
“No,” I screamed. Regrets, regrets, regrets. All 971 pairs of eyes glanced from the exit and looked around, trying to figure out who it was. Fear crawled over my body, like a venomous spider looking for a weak spot to attack. My grandfather missed one part of the story, and it was that if these people, birds, didn’t fly with me, the first bird would be dead.
Will these people fly?
A knot of everything I’ve held in launched its way up my throat. Anxiety. Stress. Loneliness. And… fear.
Finally, I shattered the illusion I held with the “perfect-narrator-voice” inside my head. “You should not be scared as a real Perfecton,” the President confirmed in my mind.
But the President succeeded in making me scared.
I am scared.
The first bird is falling.
The first bird is dying.
The first bird is no longer the bird.
I thought of death. I am going to die today. I can’t run away. Despair and regret ran through my veins, but I realized I couldn’t look back. I had to look forwards. There was only one thing left I could do. To continue. My apprehension increasingly shifted to hope. Taking a deep breath in, the words came out of my mouth: “We are Humans.”
The hall was silent–not the initial, numb silence nor the second, sulky silence –but the third type of silence. Tense silence.
A soft yet clear voice pierced through the silence. “We are Humans, ” the second bird shot up. Then the third bird. Then the fourth. More and more people repeatedly said: “We are Humans.” Some voices rang high, and some voices rang low. Some voices were scared, and some voices were bold. But no matter which voice, they all resonated in the hall.
“We are Humans,” we all said.
My grandfather told me to be the brave, first bird. But now I realized that there wasn’t the first bird. I was one amongst thousands of birds.
Those, who I thought were naive and brainwashed, turned out to stand with me: “We are Humans.” Officials, who I thought were cruel, killing all those bold voices of freedom, ripped apart their facade and joined the chorus: “We are Humans.” People, who I thought were obedient and righteous to the President, shrieked and danced in joy that they were free: “We are Humans.”
Rhythmic voices echoed in the hall. I realized the President was gone. The doors suddenly burst open, and hundreds of officials bolted in. For a moment, they too stood there mesmerized but then remembered their duty and fired into the air. Despite all the chaos and panic, one unified, free voice rang: “We are Humans.”
And then I saw an official point a gun at me.
But I couldn’t be more content than I already was because what happened today on this very morning will start to change our lives forever.
I recollected my thoughts as I lived through the last few seconds of my life.
All my life, I have been under control.
All my life, I have never been free.
I am free.
I looked at the hall one last time and this time I didn’t just see a hall; I saw a hall full of fantastic birds.
Time froze on March 15,